Tag Archives: Denny Zeitlin

For Harold Mabern’s 83rd Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2015 and an Uncut Blindfold Test from 2004

For Harold Mabern’s 83rd birthday, I’m augmenting a post that I put up in 2015 (it contained an uncut Blindfold Test that we did in 2004) with a “Director’s Cut” of a 2015 Downbeat feature. Here’s the intro I wrote to the post at the time:

Pianist Harold Mabern celebrates his 79th birthday today. I had a chance to hear him last night playing bassist Gregory Ryan’s weekly gig at at a midtown steakhouse (Joe Farnsworth on drums). The piano, which is decent but was shaky in the upper register, is placed between the stairway down from street level and the bar, and to call the room noisy would be an understatement. Still, Mabern played with customary focus, power, melodic invention and soulfulness — treated the gig with complete respect and commitment, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. A son of Memphis, Tennessee, who spent the second half of the ’50s in Chicago, Mabern has been a beacon and mentor for several generations of pianists, among them James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer, with whom he played in a five-piano band twenty years ago. I had several opportunities to talk with HM during my WKCR years, and had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with him in 2004. Here’s the uncut version.

Harold Mabern Downbeat Feature, 2015:

On March 19th, a day before he turned 79, Harold Mabern celebrated by taking a sideman gig with bassist Gregory Ryan. The venue was not a jazz club, but a cavernous mid-Manhattan branch of Hillhouse, the steakhouse chain, where the “bandstand” is a narrow 15′ floor space from the piano, which sits at the base of the stairway to the street, to the drums, next to a corner door leading to a storage room. The trio faced a large oval bar, banquettes and perhaps a dozen circular tables, packed with raucous Thursday dinner hour patrons—corporate types cutting loose before the weekend, couples, well-heeled families with small children.

While waiting for tables, folks milled about the piano, among them a woman bouncing her harnessed baby to the beat of Mabern’s relentless vamp on “You Go To My Head.” Mabern smiled broadly as he reharmonized the melody, transitioned to a long chordal passage executed in parallel octaves, then, to conclude, switched to rhythmic dialogue with Farnsworth. After stating the verse and melody of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” as a surging waltz, he shifted to several choruses of block chords over a brisk swing section. An abstract rubato solo introduction morphed into “The Nearness Of You,” reharmonized with voicings evocative of Red Garland. Two little girls had sidled by the piano, transfixed by Mabern’s huge hands dancing across the keys; he smiled at them benignly while interpolating a long section from “Strangers In The Night” and a Bobby Timmons blues. After a rollicking stroll down John Coltrane’s “Straight Street,” on which he alternated fleet single-line movements with stirring passages of two-handed invention, he closed the set with his own soulfully boppish “Aon” which premiered on Mabern’s 1968 Prestige debut Rakin’ and Scrapin’.

A week or so after this grandmaster class in the art of the trio, suffused with high intellect, deep emotion and an abiding sense of musical adventure, Mabern recalled a piece of sage advice from his good friend, the long-deceased alto saxophonist Sylvester “Sonny Red” Kyner: “Mabern, a little bit of money beats no money any day; a small gig is better than no gig at all.” Mabern continued: “Nobody’s coming where I live to hear me play. The things I do for my friends, we do for each other. The gig pays $100, but on the bandstand you get a million dollars worth of experience, because you always find something you didn’t know before.”

A fortnight later, Mabern played three nights at Smoke to acknowledge a new release, Afro Blue, on SmokeSessions, the club’s imprint. Present from the recording on the opening set were Farnsworth, bassist John Webber and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, his bandmates of choice for several decades. Vocalist Jean Baylor filled in on short notice for Alexis Cole, one of five singers on the date, along with Kurt Elling, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit and Gregory Porter. It’s the first of Mabern’s two dozen leader dates to showcase the context in which he worked frequently during the 1960s, often at Birdland but also on the road, with Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman, Irene Reid, Gloria Lynne, Dakota Station, Ernestine Anderson, Arthur Prysock, Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan, in between consequential sideman stints of varying lengths with the Jazztet, Roy Haynes, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery and Lee Morgan.

The idea gestated when Mabern mentioned his experiences with “the singing thing” during an interview for the liner notes of Right On Time, a live trio engagement with Webber and Farnsworth that launched SmokeSessions. “We asked Harold if he’d made a record with singers,” Paul Stache, the club’s proprietor and label head, said. “He said, ‘No, but I always wanted to.’” Stache already had a notion to recruit Gregory Porter for a future project after Porter sang Johnny Hartman and other Coltrane repertoire with Mabern’s group during an end-of-2011 week at Smoke. He also knew that during a three-year period when Porter sang at Smoke every Thursday, Mabern, when in town, attended almost every single performance. When Stache later reminded Mabern of the singers idea, he replied, “If you get Gregory, I’m in; I wrote a song that’s perfect for him.’” Stache put together a six-singer wish-list. “Five of them confirmed,” Stache said. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, yeah, for Harold…’”

“Gregory reminded me of Joe Williams, who I played with for three years,” Mabern said. “Joe could sing anything—what Pavarotti sang, or ‘Over The Rainbow’ or ‘Go Down, Moses’—and Gregory is ubiquitous in his language and selection of songs. I went even when it was Chicago-cold and snowing.” As Mabern does not drive, this meant catching a bus from Spring Creek Towers, a cooperative apartment complex of 15,000 residents in the East New York district of Brooklyn, to catch the 3-train for a one-hour ride to Smoke’s 106th Street and Broadway location. He moved there from Crown Heights, from which, midway through a 12-day transit strike at the beginning of 1966, he hiked 10½ miles through the snow to the Empire Hotel by Lincoln Center to catch a ride to a Blue Mitchell session for Blue Note at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. When the session was over, Mabern trekked back. “I did it six times that week,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to miss that record date. They said, ‘If you can get here…’ I made it.”

“Harold stayed two or three sets every week,” Porter confirmed over the phone. “I was very encouraged by that. He saw everything. One night he said, ‘Lou Rawls was like you.’ That’s cool coming from a master of the music. I don’t take it lightly. It means more to me than anything.”

Once all the singers signed on, Mabern conferred with each on repertoire, then worked out treatments during two days of recording. Both Porter and Elling confirm Mabern’s relaxed, collaborative attitude. “Unlike many sessions you enter as a hired gun, so to speak, Harold asked what he could do to shape the music around me—what tempo, what key,” said Porter, who sang Oscar Brown’s lyric of “Afro-Blue” and Mabern’s “The Man From Hyde Park.” The latter title references Herbie Hancock, four years Mabern’s junior, reflecting a friendship that developed during Mabern’s 1954-1959 residence in Chicago. “Before I went into the booth, I asked Harold to sing it to me at the piano—to give me the melody, the phrasing,” Porter said. “He sounded so beautiful and tender. It’s a letter to Herbie, and it was cool that he allowed me to sing this personal message.”

“It was super loose in the studio,” said Elling, who sings the blues ballad “Portrait Of Jennie,” scats on “Billie’s Bounce,” and draws on his church background in delivering the 1978 C&W hit “You Needed Me.” “Harold emailed me to ask for the key; when I arrived, I said, ‘OK, let’s just do this.’ Harold and the guys set up the arrangements on the spot, and we ran it down once. Harold, Webber and Farnsworth are top of the food chain; they have the real history in their sound.”

Mabern initially intended “You Needed Me” as a vehicle for Norah Jones, who he describes as “a modern-day Billie Holiday, without trying to be, the way she phrases and lays back.” Her counter-suggestion was “Don’t Misunderstand,” a ballad by Gordon Parks that O.C. Smith stamped as his own on the soundtrack for Shaft, and the Johnny Mercer song, “Fools Rush In,” a 1940 hit for Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey. “I’d played ‘Don’t Misunderstand’ once in the last twenty years,” Mabern said. “I said I’d think about it. Then Norah suggested we do it piano and voice. It was bold of her, but I thought we pulled it off. Key of A-flat. We couldn’t do ‘Fools Rush In’ like Sinatra, who is one of my top three vocalists along with Joe Williams and Nat Cole, so I told Farnsworth to lay down the Poinciana beat.”

He quoted Sinatra, “if you can’t sing in tune, you can’t sing,” in explaining his picks for Jane Monheit. “I’ve always liked the pureness and intonation of her voice, that she knows how to treat a ballad and something up-tempo,” Mabern said. “I figured ‘My One and Only Love’ would match her; later, she told me it was her wedding song. ‘I’ll Take Romance’ hasn’t been done much, and Eydie Gorme had a big hit with it.

For Alexis Cole, Mabern selected his stoic, bittersweet “Such Is Life.” “I learned to write lyrics from being around Bill Lee,” he said, referring to the distinguished bassist-composer to whom he dedicated Afro Blue, along with pianists Billy Wallace and Chris Anderson, also deep influences from Chicago years. Lee befriended Mabern soon after he arrived in town from Memphis, as testified by a Mabern waltz called “Brother Spike,” written to mark the birth of Lee’s son, the film director, and recorded on the eponymous 1959 VeeJay album MJT+3, by the in-vogue Chicago-based combo that exposed Mabern to the national jazz audience.s,

Like Muhal Richard Abrams, his predecessor in the first edition of MJT+3, Mabern is a self-taught pianist. Standing by an old upright at a party a few months before his fifteenth birthday, he watched a girl play a song on only black keys—the title, he learned later, was “I Stuck My Dollar In The Mud”—and then “sat down and played the same song; I just picked it up.” Soon thereafter, he learned “The Honeydripper” and “Perdido,” and started “doodling around.” Within six months, he was gigging with George Coleman and his brother, alto saxophonist Lucian Adams. Mabern’s father, who worked in lumber yard, “raked and scraped up” $60 to buy a piano, on which he applied lessons learned from close observation of pianists Charles Thomas, “who played like Bud Powell,” and told him, “If you think I can play, you’ve got to meet Phineas Newborn.” Newborn, a Tatumesque virtuoso, was then giving lessons in the back room of a local record store and playing in his father’s band at Mitchell’s Hotel, where the likes of B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Ace, Coleman, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Charles Lloyd and Mabern cut their teeth. He watched where Newborn placed his fingers, and emulated.

“He’d play like a big band; I watched him orchestrate,” Mabern said of his autodidactic learning process. “I had a small band with Charles called the Rhythm Bombers, and I’d pick and choose notes very carefully there. With George Coleman and his brother, I made a dollar a night, which was a lot of money. That was the standard, although B.B. King might have made $2-$2.50. You had to track down Sunbeam (Andrew Mitchell), the club-owner, to get that, because he had the money in the cigar box with his 22-caliber pistol.” In keeping with his glass-half-full philosophy, Mabern states, “They treated us good there, like family members. Sunbeam’s wife, Miss Ernestine, made the best chili you could find anywhere.”

Mabern declined a scholarship to Tennessee State University to join Strozier at the American Conservatory of Music, and moved north in August 1954. “The money got tight, but my sister said I should stay and see what I could do,” Mabern says, “It was the best thing that happened to me. I say I got mine from the university of the streets.” He joined trombonist Morris Ellis’ big band, where “I got my reading together,” had private lessons at the conservatory for six months, and embarked on five years of “playing and practicing 12 hours a day.”

“I met Bill Lee at the YMCA at 49th and Michigan,” Mabern reminisced. “From Bill I learned how to orchestrate, how to rearrange standard songs. I heard him play the most beautiful choruses on piano, which he plays as well as he does the bass. At first, he wouldn’t tell me anything, but when he finally gave me the time of day he said, ‘There’s another piano player named Chris Anderson who can show you what to do—and Billy Wallace.’ I couldn’t believe how many songs they knew. They were listening to Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations for Sinatra. When Charlie Parker played at the Beehive in January 1955, with Norman Simmons, Victor Sproles and Bruz Freeman, he was playing all these standards he learned from Big Nick Nicholas that other guys weren’t playing then, like ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and ‘Let’s Face The Music and Dance.’ Between sets, Bill and Billy and Chris would call out the changes for Norman that Bird might play next.

“Chris influenced Herbie Hancock, as did Andrew Hill. Chris and Herbie and Ahmad are geniuses in voicing chords, and Billy could play the same way, but he’d play a chord for every note of the melody. That’s where my harmonic concept comes from. Watching Billy, I learned to comp; same chords, more space, less busy.” For his overall attitude to piano expression, though, Mabern cites Jamal, who he became aware of through Booker Little. “I was as impressed with him as with Phineas,” he said. “I’d never heard anyone play with such command and or conceptualize sound like that. ‘Music, Music, Music’ was a corny song. Ahmad said, ‘Not the way I play it.’ Ahmad reintroduced it to us in a stylized, modern way. After ‘Poinciana,’ I knew I wanted to play like that. I tell students that if you approach the piano with anything less than an orchestrational mindset, you’re going to lose out.”

A faculty member at William Paterson University since 1981, Mabern has taught, among others, drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Bill Stewart, bassist Doug Weiss, and Alexander, who caught his ear on the first day of the 1987-88 academic year. Twenty-seven years and countless tours and recordings later, Alexander observed that Mabern’s close study of the arranging techniques of Riddle and Don Costa allowed him to “absorb and deeply understand the detailed inner voice movement and potential substitute ideas for all the Songbook tunes.” He continued: “Invariably, when we start playing through any tune I bring him, whatever I thought were the best possible changes, he’s got something better. He likes to comp more than solo, and he’s peerless at setting up the horn player to sound good no matter what they’re doing.”

Which is perhaps why so many singers kept Mabern so busy after the spring of 1961, when he came off the road after a year with Lionel Hampton, and joined Betty Carter. “I played with Betty at Birdland two-three weeks at a time, opposite Coltrane, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, or whoever,” he said. “She taught me the art of playing slow. I also worked opposite Coltrane with Johnny Hartman, who wouldn’t leave home without me. I’m proud to say that’s probably where Coltrane got the idea to record with him. Jimmy Jones and Jerome Richardson recommended me to Joe Williams, which I thought was quite a compliment.” So busy was Mabern that he subbed out singer gigs to then-aspirants Chick Corea and Hancock. “Once I paid Herbie $18, which was a lot,” Mabern said. “Scale was $15; I had a $25 gig.”

In the liner notes for Mabern’s 1993 CD, The Leading Man, the late Mulgrew Miller, a close friend, wrote that “under the hands of Mabern, the piano is challenged to ‘live up to’ its formal name—the piano-forte, for Harold dramatically plays the whole range of dynamics.” On Afro-Blue, as fifty years ago, Mabern recalibrates for singers. “I play from my shoulders, from my whole body, which is why I’m percussive,” Mabern said. “With singers I play with less force, less aggression. I use the soft pedal. You don’t voice the chord with the leading tone. You wait for them to sing a phrase, then fill in the space.”

For all the erudition he brings to any encounter with a piano, Mabern considers himself first and foremost “a blues pianist who understands the philosophy of jazz.” “Coming up in Memphis, we wanted to play bebop,” he said. “But the people had to dance. George Coleman and his brother and I would tell the drummer to keep a shuffle beat for ‘The Hucklebuck,’ and then we’d play the changes to ‘Perdido’ or ‘All The Things You Are.’ That’s how we got over. Gene Harris said, ‘I’m a blues player with chops,’ which is pretty much what I’m saying. I can play what Jamil Nasser called the ‘bone-chillin’ blues,’ I can play boogie-woogie, but I can still play the old ‘Milestones’ or ‘Moose The Mooche.’ I’m never going to stop being a blues pianist.”

“I played with Joe Williams at the Half Note. Jimmy Witherspoon came in first set, and said, ‘Hey, Joe, sing the blues.’ He said, ‘Spoon, it’s too early for the blues.’ Spoon said, ‘It ain’t never too early for the blues.’ Oh, no. I’m always blues first. As someone said, I am the blues.”
[—30—]

Harold Mabern Blindfold Test (10-1-04) – Raw Copy:

1.  Earl Hines, “Don’t You Know I Care” (from EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON, New World, 1970/1997) (Hines, piano; Duke Ellington, composer) – (5 stars)

Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care.” I can’t say that I right away recognize the pianist. I like what I’m hearing. It’s hard to tell if it’s a recent recording or something that was done a few years ago. Right now, Ted, I must say you’ve got me on this one so far, even though the sound… Right away, I know it’s not, but right now I can’t say who it is. Phineas recorded this, but I know it’s not Phineas, and Mulgrew Miller recorded this recently—I know it’s not him.  It’s not Ray Bryant, and it’s definitely not Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or any of those people. And it’s not Art Tatum.  It’s not Teddy Wilson. So if I had to take a wild guess (I don’t know if guessing is permitted), I would have to say someone like Jay McShann, or probably someone like Earl Hines. That’s just an educated guess. Of the two, I would say Earl Hines. I like the overlapping phrases with left hand and right hand. And the touch of the right hand. His touch seems to be a little heavier than Teddy Wilson’s, whose touch was a little more velvety, like Art Tatum’s was. 5 stars. [AFTER] What I’m accustomed to do, as I tell the students: Process of elimination. Eliminate who you know it’s not, and then you feel it can only be one or two people. I possibly could have said James P. Johnson, but I didn’t, or Fats Waller. When I first came to New York City, I worked at Smalls Paradise with the MJT+3, and a couple of the old-timers were there, and they looked at me and said, “Young man, you remind me a lot of Earl Hines.” To me, that was a compliment, because I didn’t know much about Earl Hines at that point. However, we all know that was Nat Cole’s hero in Chicago. He was doing everything he could to be around Earl Hines whenever he could be. I was told that he even dressed like Earl Hines—very impeccable. As they say, Earl Hines was like the Bud Powell of his time; he just opened up everything. I had a chance to work opposite him on a Newport Jazz Festival in San Remo, Italy. George Wein produced it.  I was with Wes Montgomery. We had a chance to talk. We had some pictures taken together, if I can ever find them—little small snapshots.

Reflecting back, I don’t know if you watch the Westerns channels, but they’ve been showing a lot of the black cowboys, and they mainly talk about Herb Jeffries, who was the first one to really get some prominence. He was singing with Earl Hines’ band in Chicago. Every time I hear his name, I think about Herbie Hancock. People don’t know this, but Herbie was named after Herb Jeffries—Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A little bit of trivia.

2.  Uri Caine, “Stiletto” (from LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Caine, piano, comp.; Drew Gress, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums) (3 stars)

Right now you really got me, because he could be anybody, blanket statement. I don’t hear enough of the concept to really say. We know it’s avant-garde, or controlled or uncontrolled freedom, whatever way you want to look at it, and I’m not really into it that much, even though I can appreciate some of the things I’ve listened to by Cecil Taylor over the years. Well, I can see at least it has some kind of form to it, even though I still don’t recognize the pianist. I don’t think it’s Cecil Taylor, because the form is a bit on the traditional side…whatever that means. It’s more of what I would call, as I said before, “controlled freedom,” because it has some kind of theme to it. But as to who it is, at this point it’s hard to say. Conceptually speaking, I think it’s probably somebody on the younger side, one of the younger generation guys. To take a guess (because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by this pianist), Matthew Shipp. That’s just a guess. Or another pianist who I also don’t really know a lot about—Jason Moran. Again, that’s just a guess. It’s definitely somebody who’s been influenced by McCoy Tyner and Herbie, even though, as I said before, it’s a little bit on the free side.  But it swings. I like the sound of the drums. See, with this kind of music, at least if it swings, you can get some kind of musical enjoyment out of it. As I said, not to be redundant, I hear traces of McCoy and Herbie and them. Is it possible it could be a female? I don’t think Geri Allen, but perhaps someone like Rachel Z—even though I’m not that familiar with her playing. It’s definitely somebody younger than I am. One person comes to mind, but again I haven’t heard a lot of him—Eric Lewis. But I don’t think he’s recorded yet. Or possibly Marcus Roberts. That’s just a guess. 3 stars, because it swings. [AFTER] I know who he is, but I’m not familiar with his playing at all. Once they got into the form, I enjoyed it. It was swinging. It took on a theme of its own, so it was something I could grab onto.

3. Danilo Perez, “Overjoyed” (from …TILL THEN, Verve, 2003) (Perez, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) (5 stars)

I like the song, Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed.” But I have to figure out who the pianist is. So far, I like what I’m hearing. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite pianists, but I don’t think it’s him. I hear it in the left hand-right hand. Geoff Keezer comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s Geoff. I like the sound of the recording, too. The bass is in tune, good sound on the drums. Very interesting.  Here we go again; educated guess again. It’s not Geoff Keezer. It’s not Mulgrew Miller. Possibly somebody like Brad Mehldau.  That’s just an educated guess. I enjoyed it, so I’d say 4 stars for the performance, and another star for the genius of Stevie Wonder. So 5 stars. [AFTER] Isn’t that something. I should have known it, because I think I heard it recently on the radio. I’ve heard Danilo do some wonderful things with Roy Haynes.

4. Alice Coltrane, “Walk With Me” (from TRANSLINEAR LIGHT, Verve, 2004) (Coltrane, piano; James Genus, b; Jeff Watts, d) – (4 stars)

It’s a good sound coming out of the instrument. So far I haven’t heard enough to put my finger on anybody that I recognize. It has what you call a gospel type theme to it. Whoever the pianist is, they have a good sound out of the instrument, good technique, good chord voicings in the lower register. But right now, I don’t know who it is or who it could be. Something about the theme reminds me a little bit of Keith Jarrett, but I don’t think it’s Keith. Some parts of it remind me a little of Stanley Cowell, one of my dearest and closest friends and a true musical giant, but I don’t think it’s Stanley. 4 stars. [AFTER] I noticed the harp-like qualities in the right hand. Alice Coltrane, nice. Very, very well played.

5. Eric Reed, “La Berthe” (from E-BOP, Savant, 2003) (Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Elmo Hope, composer) (4 stars)

Nice little theme. It reminds me of something that maybe Thelonious would have written, theme-wise and the way it’s syncopated. I like the performance. I like the pianist.  Nice touch. The concept reminds me of the kind of stuff that Woody Shaw used to play. But I don’t have an idea who it could be. I like the piece. I like the concept. It’s a good touch from the pianist. It’s the kind of song I would enjoy playing. But I can only take a guess on who it might be. Like I said, I hear a lot of Monk influence in the performance and in the theme itself. Possibly someone like Jessica Williams, but that’s just a guess. I think it’s an original composition. That’s the feeling I get. What period? It sounds like something that could have been written within the last year or so, conceptually speaking. Both the piece and the performance sound very up-to-date. 4 stars. [AFTER] Sorry, Eric. But he’s one of my favorites. That just shows music is never dated. Because conceptually speaking, it sounds like it could have been written last week. Eric Reed is a tremendous young musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He understands all phases of the music. I told him he’s one of the few young pianists who understands the difference between blocked chords and locked hands, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, do I really?” and we laughed. But he’s a tremendous young man. Stride, boogie-woogie, everything. I have a lot of respect for him.

6. Don Pullen, “Warriors” (from NEW BEGINNINGS, Blue Note, 1988) (Pullen, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Tony Williams, drums) (5 stars)

Right away, it sounds like a pianist I always enjoyed, because he proved he could play on the edge of being out, but he could play inside, he could play tradition. He was also a very good organ specialist. Just listening to the theme and the pianistic things he’s doing, it reminds me a lot of Don Pullen. Bingo!  At last! He was a tremendous musician. [Who do you think the drummer is?] I get a feeling it’s someone like Ed Blackwell. I don’t know if it’s him, but… The thing I like about Don Pullen… One night at the Vanguard years ago, before they got the new piano, and the upper register was a little bit out, I asked him, “Don, how did you hear up there without… You make it sound so…” He said, “I just play it.” The upper register can be a little tricky. He did wonderful things, and it didn’t seem to detract from his performance. I had a lot of respect for Don Pullen. Great musician. You can hear his classical training in his piano playing. I guess the obvious thing to say about the drummer, since they worked together, would be Dannie Richmond, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be him. Something about him reminds me a bit of Roy Haynes. I don’t hear enough of the snare sound and the cymbal, but rhythmically it reminds me a little taste of Roy Haynes. Or possibly Tony Williams. Ah, see, that’s that Massachusetts connection with Alan Dawson, Roy, Tony. Boy, could Tony play. I’ll give it 5 stars for the overall performance. To me, that’s what you call controlled freedom. The things he was doing on the piano made sense because you can hear the skills he had developed through his classical training coming through.

7. Geoff Keezer, “Gollum’s Song” (from WALK ON, Telarc, (Keezer, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

I like that. Geoff Keezer comes to mind. The concept of the song, the touch in the right hand, the ideas in the right hand. At first, a little bit, it reminded me of Mulgrew; they have a similar kind of thing at times.  But listening, it reminds me a lot of Geoff. But I need to listen a little bit more to the right hand. If I had to guess, I’d say Geoff Keezer. Give him 10 stars, if there’s such a thing. I mean, he’s that good. He’s a tremendous musician.  The one thing I love about him is that he’s really captured the essence of Phineas Newborn, Jr., more than any pianist that I can think of. Naturally, Mulgrew and Donald Brown. But Geoff has captured the little nuances. Not just the obvious stuff, which is hard enough, but Geoff has captured those little nuances that Phineas used to do. And consider the fact that Geoff never met Phineas, and all he had to go by was what he heard on records and the one video.  But I have tremendous respect for this young man. He never ceases to amaze me. I like the interplay with the bass and drums. I heard Scott Colley once with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note; he’s a very good bassist. Geoffrey Keezer. Eau Claire. Wisconsin. 5 stars. He’s even found a way to get into his playing a lot of those Latin montuno rhythmic things. He’s been getting into that a lot.

8. Herbie Hancock, “Blue Otani” (from THE PIANO, Columbia/Legacy, 1978/2004) (Hancock, piano, composer) (4½ stars)

I like it. Naturally, it’s the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Now I’ll try to figure out who it is! Oh, I like it. It’s a lot going on. When it first started out, the chord things reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock. Then it reminded me a little bit of Ray Bryant. But I’m sure it’s neither one. I enjoyed the performance, but I must say I’m stumped on that one. I have no idea. But 4½ stars. To play like that is very hard to do. That’s the thing that separated Art Tatum from all of us. To play fast or slow, and play it where the consistency of the time is still going on. He had some nice ideas, too. Good technique, good ideas—I liked the overall performance. But I have no idea. [AFTER] You’re kidding! See, I got half of it right! Years ago, we used to talk about solo piano and stride and stuff, and years ago he wasn’t really interested so much in the stride aspect.

9. Brad Mehldau, “Anything Goes” (from ANYTHING GOES, Warner, 2004) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums) (5 stars)

Hmm, “Anything Goes,” huh?  Nicely done. Cole Porter. Yeah, I like that. I like the concept. I like the fact it’s odd-metered; it sounds like it’s in 5/4. It’s nice to take a song like that, which is unique in its own way. At this point, I don’t know who the pianist is, but I like what I’m hearing. Good right hand, good left hand. I’d guess Brad Mehldau because of the ideas in the right hand, and the way he uses his left hand. You can tell he has a good left hand also. And the overall concept of the piece. Good harmonic concept also. I’ll tell you, with the quality of the crop of pianists coming out within the last 5 to 10 years, if I had to start now, I wouldn’t choose the piano.  There are some rough guys out there, man. And ladies, too. 5 stars.

10. Denny Zeitlin, “E.S.P.” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, p.; Buster Williams, b; Matt Wilson, d) – (5 stars)

Right away, I know I like the composition. I don’t want to give the wrong composer credit, but I know it’s either Herbie’s tune or Wayne Shorter’s. Sometimes I get them a little mixed up. But that much I know. The tune is either Herbie’s or Wayne’s when they played with Miles.  There’s some stuff there chordally that reminds me of Ahmad. Another one of these two-handed pianists. It reminds me a little bit of a gentleman that I used to hang out with in Chicago, when he was studying at Johns Hopkins. Denny Zeitlin comes to mind because of the harmonic concept and the ability to use both hands equally well. But that’s just a guess. Again, process of elimination, I know who it’s not, but he comes to mind. The cymbal beat from the drummer reminds me a little bit of Tony Williams. I just heard something from the bassist that reminded me a little of Ron Carter, but it’s not Ron Carter. Oh, that’s Buster Williams. Tremendous musician. Unsung hero. Would that possibly be Matt Wilson? So it’s Denny Zeitlin. A couple of years ago, I saw that trio working at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago 5 stars, mainly because of our Chicago connection and the love we both have for Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Wallace. He had a lot of respect and still has a lot of respect for Billy Wallace, Dr. Denny Zeitlin.

11. Anthony Wonsey, “Darn That Reality” (from BLUES FOR HIROSHI, Sharp-9, 2004) (Wonsey, p; Richie Goods, b; Tony Reedus, d) – (5 stars)

Sounds like “Darn That Dream” but rearranged. I like it. The pianist sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite call him. David Hazeltine comes to mind because of the arrangement of the song, for some reason, but I’m not sure. The drums sound like it could be Joe Farnsworth, but again I’m not totally sure. It sounds like David Hazeltine to me, even though a lot of the stuff he’s doing in the right hand is a little out of character. By that I mean it’s not normally the way he would play.  But because of the arrangement, I would have to say David Hazeltine, possibly Farnsworth, maybe Peter Washington. 5 stars. It’s not? Well, I still give it 5 stars. I hear a lot of Phineas Newborn type of influence in the right hand with the triplets and things. Swinging. [AFTER] Oh, Mulgrew Miller’s ex-student. That’s why I could hear a little of the Phineas Newborn influence. Wonsey. I’ll still give him 5.

12. Bud Powell, “Tea For Two” (from BIRDLAND ‘53, Vol.1, FRESH SOUND, 1953/1991) (Powell, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) (5 stars)

I know it’s an older recording. Just listening to the concept, I’d have to say Bud Powell, off the top. I’ll stand by Bud Powell, and give him all the stars you can muster up. “Tea For Two.” As an educated guess, I’d say the drummer is Max, and the bassist is either Mingus or George Duvivier. Possibly Arthur Taylor? Just an educated guess. Bud definitely opened stuff up. He and Nat Cole. Two different schools, but very influential. 5 stars.

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Filed under Alice Coltrane, Anthony Wonsey, Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Chicago, Denny Zeitlin, Don Pullen, Earl Hines, Eric Reed, Geoff Keezer, Harold Mabern, Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn

For Denny Zeitlin’s 76th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2005, My Liner Notes for the 2000 Release “As Long As There’s Music,” and Our Interview for that Liner Note

The magnificent pianist Denny Zeitlin turns 76 today. I first had an opportunity to encounter him whenwas asked to write the liner notes for his 2000 release (1997 recording) titled As Long As There’s Music, a trio date with Buster Williams and Carl Allen. Five years later, he agreed to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. I’m posting Blindfold Test first, then the liner note, then our complete interview, in which Dr. Zeitlin offered a lot of interesting information about the Chicago scene in the ’50s, among other things.

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Denny Zeitlin Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Ben Waltzer, “The More I See You” (from ONE HUNDRED DREAMS AGO, Fresh Sounds, 2004) (Waltzer, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Immediately when that track starts, I get the feeling I’m in the hands of a really good bebop player. Really sinuous lines, great time feel, the group is very much together. Then it goes into a very interesting statement of the head. I’m trying to remember the name of that standard. Is it “The More I See You”? Really a very charming treatment of that. Then some very good, solid blowing with single lines, right hand lines that are always crackling and popping along, and the rhythm section is very much together. This pianist, at least on this cut, is using his left hand primarily as a comping instrument, and some very interesting ostinato figures begin to emerge towards the end of the piano solo, which get repeated at the very end, and it sort of transmutes into an Afro-Cuban vamp at the end, which is a very nice way to end this tune, with a kind of surprise chord at the end. Overall, it was really nice to listen this really crackling trio. It seems to me this pianist is somebody who has listened a lot to Bud Powell, and is probably in the next generation. This could be somebody like Kenny Barron or someone else of that ilk. I liked it a lot. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know these cats, but they sound very good. Very solid. Very much out of that tradition.

2.   Eddie Higgins, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from HAUNTED HEART, Venus, 1997) (Higgins, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That was the old standard, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It begins with a quite dramatic rubato introduction. The pianist obviously has a very nice touch. He chooses to play this piece with a minimum amount of reharmonization, at least at the beginning of the cut, moves into a stride-like treatment, sort of more old style treatment of this tune, with bass and drums staying very much in the background but certainly supportive, and several choruses of working with the changes of the tune. Overall, there’s an elegant, relaxed feel about it. I enjoyed the nice, Tatumesque series of changes coming out of the final bridge before the last statement of the melody. I could tell as the piece was developing, particularly the improvisation, that this was a pianist who was holding himself back a little bit, which makes me think about the context of a recording or perhaps some restrictions placed by the record label.  I would give it 3½ stars. I’ll probably be embarrassed to find out who it is, but I don’t recognize the player. You don’t know sometimes how much a producer, for instance, really gets into a recording session, or how an overall thematic approach to an album concept does. What I remind myself, and I wish listeners would keep in mind is that when they hear a cut from an artist’s CD, they’re getting a snapshot of what that artist was thinking, feeling and doing at that time. It’s not necessarily a statement about who he or she is musically in some global way at all. It’s merely a snapshot. [AFTER] Well, I’ve always enjoyed Eddie’s playing very much, and I’ll give myself credit for recognizing the touch. That’s something I’ve always been most drawn to in Eddie’s playing, is the touch. [Any recollections of him from Chicago days?] Yes. Eddie was one of the players who was established on the scene when I first started to play back in the ‘50s. He was very encouraging to me and opened some doors in introducing me to people, and has always been a fan of my playing, and I’ve always really admired his playing very much. He’s wonderful behind singers, too. A marvelous accompanist.

3.  Robert Glasper, “Rise and Shine” (from CANVAS, Blue Note, 2005) (Glasper, piano, composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Damien Reid, drums)

Wow, I really loved that cut. It was quite a journey. A wonderful piano player with great command of the instrument, and time and shapes. I loved the tune and the arrangement and the overall feel of this trio. You get the sense that this is a trio that’s worked together a lot. Very integrated and very interactive, and I love the different time signatures and their way of working with it. The solo consistently built and was intriguing and swinging throughout. Initially, I felt quite confident it was Brad Mehldau, and then towards the end some of the developments and figures were things I’ve never heard Brad do. Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do them. Just the cuts I heard didn’t have some of those things, and the recorded bass sound was a little different to the way his trio usually sounds. But I thought this was a terrific cut. 5 stars. My best guess would be Brad Mehldau, but I have a hunch it’s somebody who’s listened to Brad a lot, maybe some younger cat or someone contemporaneous with him. [AFTER] I’ve heard his name, and I know he’s done an album for Blue Note. People are talking about it. I have not heard him play. Terrific, I think.

4.   Andrew Hill, “Malachi” (from TIME LINES, Blue Note, 2005) (Hill, piano, composer)

That’s a very atmospheric mood piece, with a very unusual use of the sustain pedal, creating clouds and then abrupt disappearance of them, and new sounds appearing. It was almost entirely in one mode, which certainly sustains the atmospheric mood, punctuated by unusual use of dynamics with adjacent notes sometimes quite different in intensity, and occasionally punctuated by this little three-note motif, and then at the very end finally shifting the mode into a minor ending. Interesting atmosphere. 3 stars. I have no idea who it is. It’s someone seemingly coming out of a rubato classical tradition. [Any sense of it coming out of someone’s sustained body of work over the years? An older player? A younger player?] I would say that this is an older player. This does not strike me as a younger player’s work. It sounds to me like somebody who is steeped in the classical tradition, certainly has an understanding of how modes and atmospheres work, and… I don’t know much more to say about that. [AFTER] I always enjoyed Andrew very much. He’s one of the players who was playing actively at the time I started playing in Chicago. He always had a very original, unusual concept. Now knowing that it’s Andrew, and I could rewind the tape in my head and understand how it would be him. But I’ve never heard him play a piece like that. I’ve always heard him play much more angular kinds of things, either with a trio or with larger groups. But he’s certainly one of the original players, a real force in the music.

5.   Chris Anderson-Charlie Haden, “Body and Soul” (from NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, Naim, 1997) (Anderson, piano; Haden, bass)

That’s one of my favorite tunes on this planet. I seem to never get tired of playing it or hearing it. This was a very relaxed, languid reading of this piece with a pianist whom I certainly don’t recognize off the bat, accompanied by I believe Charlie Haden. If I’m correct about Charlie, I know he also loves “Body and Soul.” I think he even did a project once with a whole bunch of piano players or maybe other instrumentalists playing “Body and Soul.” I never heard the project, but he was always talking about doing it, and I’ll bet this well could be a cut from that project. I don’t recognize the pianist. I’d say it’s a pianist who was probably actively playing back in the ‘50s. It was very relaxed, and I enjoyed it. Clearly, they just got together and just played it. It was like they jammed on this tune, and it had a very relaxed feel. 4 stars. [AFTER] Is that right? Wow. It didn’t sound like Chris. Knowing now that it was Chris, I’d say a little bit of the halting aspect to the right hand lines reminds me of some of the searching way that Chris would go at it. But what doesn’t tip me off to Chris on this particular cut is that he usually had such unusual harmonic progressions and voicings that he would bring to a tune. This piece doesn’t strike me as what’s the hallmark of Chris Anderson’s really quite innovative approach to jazz voicing. [What was the nature of his influence on you, or someone like Herbie Hancock, people who came under his spell during the late ‘50s in Chicago?] He was a legend in Chicago. Bobby Cranshaw first told me that I had to hear this cat play. When I first heard him, it was wonderful to hear the unusual ways he would put voicings together. That’s really what I think his contribution was. He himself was profoundly influenced by Nelson Riddle. He was very interested in the effects of doubling notes and not doubling notes. He was often very careful not to double certain notes. I remember grabbing this guy and saying, “Chris, you’ve got to show me how you voice that chord,” and I’d be sitting there writing down stuff and trying to figure it out. A lot of players in Chicago were doing exactly the same thing, because he really had a lot to offer.

6.   Fred Hersch, “Bemsha Swing” (from THELONIOUS: FRED HERSCH PLAYS MONK, Nonesuch, 1997) (Hersch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

That was an interesting approach to “Bemsha Swing.”  I feel an affinity for that tune, having just recorded it myself as a solo pianist, and it’s always so interesting to hear what other people do with it. This pianist took it in a very different direction, dealing with a lot of the fragments of the melody, and it was played in a very spare way. It sounded to me like someone who has quite a bit of a classical background. I liked the originality of some of the figurations and way of approaching the tune, which I thought breathed some freshness into this. 3½ stars. No idea who it might be offhand. [AFTER] I love Fred’s playing, and I wouldn’t have picked this one out. Monk is so marvelous, because not only was he unique in the universe, but his compositions are springboards for so many players and improvisers to take things into their own realm. I don’t think the idea is to be “faithful” to Monk (I don’t think he would have wanted that), but rather than you could use these pieces as wonderful launching pads. So I’m always interested to see what other players do with Monk, and I’ve always found his compositions to be really inspirational. I think I started playing some of his stuff in high school. I heard some of the Blue Note things that I liked. Another album that really appealed to me was called Nica’s Tempo, a Gigi Gryce album on Signal. Half the album was Monk, Gigi Gryce, Percy Heath and Art Blakey, and they had things like “Gallop’s Gallop” and “Brake’s Sake.” I loved those pieces, man. And I loved the early Blue Note stuff, which I heard in high school. [Did you have to figure out fingerings and ways to play them? Was that part of the pleasure, too?] Sure. You had to figure out how to negotiate them. But I guess in some ways, more even than physically playing his tunes was the inspiration his compositions and improvisations gave to me to be able to take my own work into different spaces. I think that’s generally been true of how I’ve assimilated music. It hasn’t been so much that I’ve wanted to play a lot of the pieces of other jazz musicians, although I do and I’ve recorded, but even more, their gift to me is what I can do, and then take it in terms of my own compositions and improvisations. The same thing is true with the influence of the classical composers on me when I was growing up. I was always drawn much more to the modern people. Initially I made a big leap all the way from Bach to the impressionists and beyond. In more recent years, I’ve sort of been drinking in the period in between with a great love for Rachmaninoff and Chopin and lots of other people. But I was tremendously drawn to Ravel and Bartok and Berg and people like that, and then, of course, George Russell, when I heard him in high school, knocked the top of my head off. [Were these things in the air in Chicago at all? Do you think that you and generational contemporaries were listening to similar music and affected by similar strains?] I don’t know. I don’t remember talking to people a lot about, for instance, what classical composers they were listening to. We would talk a lot about records that had come out or players we liked in the jazz genre. But I had come up studying classical music throughout grade school, and had always loved these more modern people. But again, I didn’t have a tremendous interest in keeping up a classical repertoire and performing classical pieces. I wanted to use that material in my own music. That’s always been the way I’ve been built. [I’m also interested in the common strains? A Chicago school of piano playing?] I’m trying to think. I don’t remember having conversations with Chicago pianists about classical music very much. I remember talking to Chris Anderson a bit when he was talking about Nelson Riddle. He certainly loved the Impressionists and the voicings of those players. But I don’t remember talking about Classical music with the Chicago cats.

7.   Craig Taborn, “Bodies We Came Out Of” (from LIGHT MADE LIGHTER, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Taborn, piano; Chris Lightcap, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

That was another piece that really takes you on a journey. I thought it had tremendous hypnotic drive to it, a very skilled pianist. I enjoy very much overlaying different time signatures against each other and asymmetric figures that crash through and drape over barlines, and this pianist enjoys doing that kind of thing, too, so I feel a kindred spirit with that. There was just a wonderful roiling feeling to it all the way through. The drummer was just terrific. Very enjoyable. 5 stars. Don’t know who that is, though. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Terrific pianist.

8.  Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 2000) (Hancock, piano)

Boy, what a beautiful journey through “Embraceable You” that was. Gorgeous recording in terms of sound. The pianist has a beautiful touch. Now, these are the voicings that I would have expected from the Chris Anderson cut. If Chris were physically in better shape, I’d say this could be Chris, but he rarely was feeling physically well enough to be able to play at this technical level. As you know, he had ostogenesis imperfecta, and was always nursing injuries. It was amazing that he could play at all, given what he was dealing with. This was just a beautiful rendition, I thought. The rubato treatment. Beautiful and unusual reharmonizations throughout. Lovely surprises. You feel the pianist searching, taking his or her time with this piece. Going for not the easy answer. Some of the modulations I thought were heartbreakingly beautiful, and the improvisation using fragments of the melody rather than feeling that they had to be worked through in terms of the actual structure of the tune per se. Beautiful playing. 5 stars. I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Herbie? Wow. Beautiful. It’s gorgeous, and I’ve been a big fan of Herbie’s playing over the years. We had only a nodding acquaintance in Chicago. We got to know each other better when I was out on the West Coast and he would come through with Miles. We used to get together and do four-handed duets on my piano, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s  work a lot through the years. I am hoping, if Columbia ever releases a CD of this concert that was done in honor of Conrad Silvert back in the ‘80s… Herbie and I did a two-piano duet on “Round Midnight” which I would love to see included. I thought it was something really special.

9.  The Bad Plus, “Flim” (from BLUNT OBJECT: LIVE IN TOKYO, Sony, 2004) (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Certainly very different from anything you’ve played for me so far today. This is a melding of Pop and Rock and perhaps even Folk elements. Aspects of it remind me of the Bad Plus, but it doesn’t have the fire and the drive that I typically associate with their playing – at least that I’ve heard. It makes me wonder about a group that I haven’t yet heard, but I’ve heard about – whether this could be E.S.T.  Certainly the group was using these very simple motifs, and just laying them down very repetitive, I think trying to establish a hypnotic groove on those terms. It certainly seemed like it’s played by people who know how to play their instruments, and it’s just a question if one is drawn to this kind of thing. For my own personal taste, 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it could have been screaming Europeans! I haven’t heard E.S.T. Do they sound like this at all? [They sound very Nordic – folk music, club beats, classical harmony] I heard them last year at IAJE, and I loved them. I thought what they did that night was terrific. But this didn’t have the balls.

10.  Edward Simon, “You’re My Everything, #1” (from SIMPLICITAS, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Simon, piano, composer; Avishai Cohen, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

Nice treatment of an old standard, “You’re My Everything.” A pianist who obviously has a realized style, a very sumptuous, relaxed sound. Nice voicings. The whole group sounded very relaxed. There were some nice reharmonizations on the head. The bass player is terrific; took a couple of excellent choruses. Then the piano solo was interesting, had a great relaxed feel to it, some moments of nice right hand-left hand interaction. When they finally got into walking on this piece, there was a really good groove, and a very nice feel to it. I liked the way the head was approached at the end in a kind of loose way, and then they moved into this eighth-note vamp at the end which was very relaxed and had some interesting piano figures on it. Overall, a very satisfying cut. 4½ stars. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Never heard him. Nice player.

11.  Renee Rosnes, “Miyako” (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, TLE, 2002) (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

That was “Miyako” from my favorite living composer, Wayne Shorter. A very nice treatment, verging into the more dramatic ways of approaching the piece. The pianist had very, very nice voicings and command of the instrument. A very graceful style. It sounded more like Herbie to me than anybody. I doubt you’d play two tracks from the same pianist in the same Blindfold Test, but it’s somebody who has certainly been very influenced by Herbie. The bass player sounded like he was influenced by Charlie Haden, but also played very well. I thought the whole feel of the piece was very satisfying. 4½ stars.

12.  Eldar Djangirov, “Maiden Voyage” (from ELDAR, Sony, 2004) (Djangirov, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Todd Strait, drums)

A furious, tumultuous version of “Maiden Voyage,”  played by a pianist who I think must be Eldar Djangirov. I’ve never heard his recordings, but I did hear him live last year at the IAJE Convention. He’s a young man with obviously prodigious talent and technique, and hopefully he’ll stay healthy and have all the exposure he needs that will nurture his talent, and that more and more what will emerge will be his true voice, his true center. Right now, I think he’s facing the problem that almost all young jazz players face, particularly if they’re as gifted as he is, of becoming an editor of one’s own materials. There’s a tendency to want to put everything into every piece that one can do and that one knows. There’s a gravitational pull to do that. It can be very seductive. I think time will tell, and with this kind of talent he’s got a brilliant future. 3 stars.

13.  Ahmad Jamal, “I’m Old Fashioned” (from AFTER FAJR, Dreyfuss, 2004) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums)

That was Ahmad Jamal playing “I’m Old Fashioned,” or somebody who clones himself after Ahmad. I enjoyed it tremendously. I will assume it’s Ahmad, and so make comments about him and what I think his music has meant particularly to the whole trio tradition. Coming up in the ‘50s in Chicago I had a chance to hear him, and his use of space and the way of floating over the time and getting that kind of groove. The groove on that piece was very typical of the kind of groove that Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby would get with him back in the ‘50s when he was playing these kinds of pieces. There was always this wonderful sense of drama and surprise in his playing. He, too, had been influenced by Chris Anderson and had gotten some very unusual ways of reharmonizing and voicing chords I think at least partly from Chris. He certainly is an original and has his own thing. It’s a pleasure to hear this. I’ll be embarrassed if it’s somebody cloning himself after Ahmad, but that I think is worth 5 stars.

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Liner Notes, Denny Zeitlin, As Long As There’s Music:

On As Long As There’s Music, pianist Denny Zeitlin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster, who boast more than one hundred years of combined professional experience, embody the principle of the trio as an equilateral triangle.  Addressing a varied program of interesting Songbook and Jazz standards plus a few pungent originals, Zeitlin, guided by unerring melodic radar, ingeniously reimagines his material, reharmonizing and orchestrating with spontaneous elan, maintaining peak focus and flow throughout the recital, deploying towards unfailingly musical ends a prodigious technique that Marion McPartland, referring to a duet they played last year on her NPR “Piano Jazz” show, described as akin “to a tidal wave washing over me.”  Williams and Foster anticipate Zeitlin’s postulations, responding with laser quick precision, nuanced musicality and relentless swing; if you didn’t know that this was their first-ever encounter, you’d swear they’d shared bandstands for years.

Zeitlin is a psychiatrist with a large private practice in the Bay Area.  He also teaches at the University of California and lecture-demonstrates on the psychology of improvising.  So he can speak with some authority on the interpersonal dynamics of trio playing, of which this session might serve as a textbook.  “You always hope for a merger experience with your partners, which can be complicated in a trio,” he remarks.  “If things go extremely well, three people can feel that the music is just emanating from the stage — it’s hard even to know for sure who is playing what.  When my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I also have it when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist, a sense of inhabiting the world that my patients are talking about.

“If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine how I would infuse my three-thousandth appendectomy with new excitement.  As you do psychotherapy, as much as it’s true that you hear common themes in the human life cycle that endlessly repeat, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  In my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient tell their story.  My function is to help them feel it’s safe to go into areas of their life they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  The role of accompanying another soloist on the bandstand is parallel.  The biggest difference is that I often solo for long periods of time on a stage, which I’m not doing in my office with patients.”

Now 62, Zeitlin is no stranger to jazz connoisseurs.  His five mid-’60s trio albums for Columbia won widespread acclaim, resulting in two first place finishes in the Downbeat Critics Poll.  He spent the ’70s focusing on a pioneering integration of jazz, electronics, classical and rock, culminating in the 1978 electronic-acoustic score for Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. He concertizes internationally, working with bass giants like David Friesen, Charlie Haden, and John Patitucci, appearing at one point or another with John Abercrombie, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, the Kronos Quartet, Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, and Paul Winter.

That said, most Zeitlin devotees probably don’t know much about his formative years, when he encountered the blend of cultural influences that shaped his sensibility.  It started at home, in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. His mother, Rosalyn, was a speech pathologist and “fairly decent classical pianist,” while his father, Nathaniel, was a radiologist “who couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear.”  As he puts it, “I bilaterally had both fields — medicine and music — from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say people can follow their muse, that it doesn’t have to be either-or; from very early on I had a sense that I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.”

Zeitlin remembers traversing the keyboard at 2 or 3; soon after he began “picking out little melodies and improvising.”  Formal instruction began at 7 or 8.  He recalls: “I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel, and was tremendously excited by composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg.  I started to listen to jazz around eighth grade.  One night my music teacher brought to a lesson a recording of George Shearing playing ‘Summertime’ and I was knocked out.  Here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  I wanted to learn about this genre!  She began bringing Art Tatum albums over, and that was it.”

As a high school freshman Zeitlin formed a piano-guitar-drums trio called the Cool Tones for which he composed original music informed by the cutting edge of the zeitgeist.  He cites as early influences Bud Powell (“his power and angularity and originality spoke to me”), Billy Taylor (“he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch; I was particularly drawn to the power of his ballad playing”), Lennie Tristano (“his harmonic conception and rhythmic subtleties with the line of a solo”), Dave Brubeck (“I thought he had his own thing and followed it with tremendous conviction”), and Thelonious Monk (“an utterly quirky genius full of endless surprise”).

Zeitlin began to partake of Chicago’s raucous jazz scene as soon as he could drive, hearing headliners and “resident greatness” at North Side institutions like Mr. Kelly’s and the French Poodle, hanging out in South Side rooms like the Beehive and the Stage Lounge until 4 or 5 in the morning.  By his senior year he was jamming with hardcore Windy City progressives, forming relationships that deepened as he pursued pre-med studies at the University of Illinois, in downstate Champaign, where Joe Farrell, Jack McDuff and Roger Kellaway were among the local talent.

“My parents knew I was utterly galvanized by this, that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to encourage and allow this to happen,” Zeitlin explains.  “They had a tremendous amount of trust in me; that I wasn’t, for example, using drugs or having problems with alcohol, that I could be around that subculture without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced.  I was able to take this opportunity of a priceless many-year informal apprenticeship in the music.  In those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the way one had to learn it.  I would collar somebody like Chris Anderson after the gig and say, ‘Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?’  By osmosis I tried to absorb as much of this art form as I could, and generally, I found musicians were gracious and willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play.”

By 1954, Zeitlin’s influences, as he puts it, “rapidly became non-pianistic.”  He honed in on Miles Davis’ “incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.”  He was fascinated with the roles of drums and bass, particularly Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath and Paul Chambers — he took up the instruments enough to do some gigging both in high school and college.  He analyzed the harmonic system John Coltrane was developing circa 1959-60, and analogizes the experience of hearing Coltrane as “like being shot out of a cannon, being at the center of a cyclone; I was tremendously drawn towards what some people have called his vertical chromaticism.”  He fell in love with the free improvisation aesthetic of the Ornette Coleman quartet; “I’d enjoyed free improvisation since I was 2 or 3 years, and here were guys making a whole life out of doing it in jazz.”

While Zeitlin attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, he “had carte blanche, whenever I could sneak away, to come and sit in at the North End Lounge,” owned by the father of saxophonist Gary Bartz, where he played with musicians like the younger Bartz, trombonist Grachan Moncur and drummer Billy Hart.  In 1963, while attending Columbia University on a fellowship, he met composer-theorist George Russell — “We hung out, talked about music, played with each other; he was tremendously encouraging to me.”  During that time, Paul Winter, a Chicago acquaintance, “dragged me kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he startled me by saying, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can play whatever you want and use whomever you want.'”

Consider this complex matrix of experience as you listen to the assorted treasures — they’re primarily first takes — on As Long As There’s Music.  The title could serve as Zeitlin’s raison d’etre.  “I try to get to the piano every day,” he states, “not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but that I am called to it.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I was never drawn to technical exercises.  I garnered new technical skills by pushing myself to play classical pieces somewhat beyond my current technical capability.  Now when I practice, I usually just improvise, sometimes with an ear towards possible composition.  Doing that keeps my fingers lubricated, and it nourishes my soul to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.”

The title track, which Zeitlin first heard on an early ’50s George Shearing quintet side, is a favorite of the bassist Charlie Haden, who Zeitlin met when the pianist arrived in the Bay Area in 1964 as an intern at San Francisco General Hospital.  Haden was on two of Zeitlin’s early Columbia LPs, and they recorded a duo version of the song on a 1983 ECM album.  On this version Zeitlin shifts the piece into waltz time, employs a bit of organic reharmonization, Foster articulates barely perceptible shifts in tempo and dynamics, Williams nudges the pulse along with subtle accents, and the trio rides out with a polyrhythmic dialogue on a sweet vamp.

Zeitlin notes: “The challenge of a standard is to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but find an approach that might breathe fresh life into it.  You can reshape it structurally, but most often you may want to reharmonize it, which can seduce you with its possibilities.  At its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  Often, the tune gets lost, or becomes so cluttered that it becomes a logjam of material.  I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to see what new directions the tune might take.”

Zeitlin conceptualized “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “The Man I Love” for a Gershwin concert celebration a few months before the session.  On the former, after the trio serenely states the head, Zeitlin plays solo piano with a bit of stride and a nod to Art Tatum, which cues an increasingly intense piano-drum duet, which leads to a double-time trio section that evokes the essence of Bud Powell.  After Buster Williams’ spot-on solo, they transition to the original medium-tempo head statement.

The latter tune, which concludes the album, opens with a brief free piano improvisation which sets a mood, before a rubato melody statement that brings in the trio, which springboards off a vivid vamp into ever-escalating improvisational adventures.

Is the consummately lyrical Zeitlin a lyrics man or is he inspired by a song’s musical content?   “It’s more of the latter,” Zeitlin responds.  “I know many musicians feel it’s crucial to know the lyric — almost ‘How could you not know it and play the tune?’  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer.  Now, the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any tune that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.  Favorite female vocalists whose lyrics stay with me over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.”

Add to that list Billie Holiday, the inspiration for “For Heaven’s Sake,” which Zeitlin played for years in solo, duo and trio contexts, but never recorded.  His reharmonized interpretation, framing a delicate Buster Williams solo, evokes the inherent tenderness and yearning in the melody.

“There and Back,” the first of two Zeitlin originals, moves back and forth between walking jazz time and a straight-eighth, funky feel, while “Canyon” is a clever “minor blues-oid construction.”  “I’ve always perceived improvisation as being spontaneous composition,” says Zeitlin, whose best-known piece is “Quiet Now,” which Bill Evans recorded numerous times.  “I hope my improvising imparts a sense of a journey, a feeling of inevitability about how it proceeds, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake.  I often think of my pieces as roadmaps that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other, with some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that challenge me and the musicians.”

Zeitlin heard Barbra Streisand sing “I’m All Smiles” on her ’60s People album; the trio plays it straight in a relaxed version that brings out all the beauty of the melody.

“Cousin Mary” continues a long line of Zeitlin interpretations of John Coltrane’s “Atlantic period.”  Zeitlin reharmonizes the head and drives hard-edged right into the blues; he sounds like a playful dancer, deconstructing the harmonic structure with wit and imagination.

There’s an elegant reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste,” and a heart-on-the-sleeve version of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” that Zeitlin describes as “a real organic journey.”

The same could be said for the entirety of As Long As There’s Music.  “I organized the arrangements to explore different things we could do as a trio,” Zeitlin concludes.  “I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  I felt there was some special chemistry here.”

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin (For As Long As There’s Music) – (9-16-00):

TP:    Let’s talk about the circumstances of this record.  You haven’t recorded with a trio for 10-11-12 years.  What’s the most common configuration in performance, solo, duo, trio?  Are they all equally…

ZEITLIN:  In some ways they are yes.  Over time they’ve been pretty balanced.  Rarely I’ll play in a larger context, maybe a quartet, but it’s typically more of a solo, duo or trio setting for me.

TP:    Perhaps you could state in a succinct way the different experience of performing in each media, how each creates a different space for you.

ZEITLIN:  The solo playing offers the unique challenge of having to create all the music oneself.  I’ve always thought of the piano as a symphonic instrument, so it gives me an opportunity and a challenge of trying to paint with all the colors of the orchestra as best I can, using the piano.  It also offers me complete freedom as to where I might take the form from moment to moment.  I don’t have to really be concerned by the forces that might be mobilized by the other musicians on the stage.  In some ways that’s a plus as a soloist.  Out there all by myself, I can take it wherever I would like.  On the other hand, you can argue that I miss out on all of the input that another or other musicians would give me.  So there’s always positives and negatives to these situations when you compare them to other possibilities.  But just in and of itself, the solo situation is a marvelous one for me in that I do get a chance to take the music wherever it might want to go from moment to moment, and that I have this kind of unique possibility for producing all of it myself.  In that setting, on a psychological level, the kind of emotional connection I’m making is to the music and to the spirit of the music, and then to the audience in the sense of reaching out with this music to I guess what Stravinsky used to talk about as “the hypothetical Other” — the perfect audience person.  And I’m hoping there’s at least a few of them out there in the actual audience.  I’m sending the music out there in the hopes that the people will try to reach out and meet the music halfway.  When that happens, it’s a very palpable experience for me, and at its very best I end up feeling like I’m just a conduit for the music, and that we’re all in the audience listening to what’s going on.

TP:    Now, the duo situation I would presume has a somewhat different dialoguing quality.

ZEITLIN:  It does.  And it still contains the complement of sending the music out and hoping for a merger experience with the audience.  But in the duo setting, I’m hoping for a merger experience with whomever is my musical partner up there.  Since typically it’s been bass, although I do duets with David  Grisman, and I’ve played duets in the past with Herbie Hancock, with John Abercrombie, with Marion McPartland… It’s the most transparent kind of group playing, as far as I can see.  With just two people up there, there is a tremendous kind of interpersonal nakedness, which at its best can lead to some very special music.  It doesn’t have the complexity, in some ways, of a trio, but in some ways it has more freedom in that there is maybe more opportunity to take the form in different directions from moment to moment, because there could be a greater possibility that two people will be in synch than three.  And particularly with bass and piano, with no drums, there is a lot of opportunity for a certain kind of subtlety and nuance to be heard that might otherwise be covered sometimes, at least, by drums, no matter how sensitive a drummer might be, and very subtle shifts in timbre can be heard and perceived.  So I think of the duo situation more like a kind of group chamber music of a sort. And it’s a very exciting form, and I’ve enjoyed that.  I’ve done a lot of duo playing over the last 15 years with David Friesen; we’ve recorded a number of albums together, and that’s been a very special experience.

In the trio it gets more complicated.  I think we still have the opportunity and obligation to attempt the merger with the audience, but now we’ve got three people…if things are going extremely well, three people who could somehow have a kind of merger experience where we all feel that the music is just emanating from the stage, but it’s hard to even know for sure who is playing what.  I think when my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I think it’s also true when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist.

TP:    That you have a sense of merger with the patient.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, with the patient and with the material, a sense of really inhabiting the world that they are talking about.  I am hoping to achieve some measure of that in the musical setting as well.

TP:    Hopefully what a writer would wish to achieve with his subject.  Empathy.

ZEITLIN:  It’s empathy and also the flow experience, that Mihalyihas Csikszent has written about.  He’s written about a dozen books, starting in 1976, about the flow experience.  What’s the essential fun in Fun, and what is it that particularly will call people to do activities that don’t seem to have tremendous external rewards.  He over a period of time delineated the characteristics of the flow experience, which are things like utter concentration without being aware that one is particularly concentrating, an altered sense of time, a sense of tremendous internal rightness about what’s going on, a process orientation rather than a content orientation, the merger experience with the activity and often ecstatic feelings about it.  Those are parts of the flow experience, maybe not an exhaustive list of the components of it.

TP:    Had you ever worked with this particular configuration before?

ZEITLIN:  This was a first time experience.  One rehearsal the day before.

TP:    You sound like to me like you’d been playing together for ten years.

ZEITLIN:  I thought there was a special rapport that immediately generated with these guys.  I had loved their music for years.  I first heard Al with Miles years ago, and I heard Buster even earlier when he was with Herbie, and I had always hoped that someday I might get a chance to do a project with them.  In fact, Todd asked me to do a little personal liner for the album, and I mention that.  I’ll send you those few paragraphs.  I go into it, that I’d always hoped to do a project with them.  So when this came along, when Todd called me about doing this trio album, I thought immediately of them, and I was delighted that they were available and it turned out that they were both familiar with my music and had liked it, so that we approached it all of us having a good vibe about what we’d heard earlier in each other’s music, and I think considerable excitement about what we might do together.  Sometimes studio sessions can sound fairly mundane or just workmanlike, or people get together and the music is good and whatever.  But I felt there was some special chemistry here.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of live recordings.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and I generally prefer the live setting for a recording, because I think it helps get people into that flow experience, that the presence and challenge of an audience can pull more for that sort of merger experience and a higher level of excitement.  So a studio poses a challenge of can you tap into this somehow.  I thought all the ingredients were present in this setting.  This was Clinton Studio A.  I’d never played there before.  I thought the room had great feel.  It was one of the best Steinway Grands I’d ever performed on.  It was impeccably maintained.  It was as if I had sat down at the piano and played a few notes, and the piano said to me, “We can do anything you want.”  Sometimes one gets a personal sense of connection to an instrument.  It’s interesting that almost everyone else carries their instrument with them wherever they go, so they develop I’m sure a much more intense personal attachment and connection to the actual instrument.  I am at the mercy of what’s at every venue.  So there’s always some anxiety, despite reassurances, as to what I am going to run into, whether it’s a performance or a recording.  This just happened to be an almost miraculous Steinway, one of the top 3 or 4 pianos I’ve ever played in my life.  The studio had a whole cupboard full of almost antique treasures, of tube and Neumann microphones, which are just gorgeous.  They gave that wonderful warm sound to the piano.  It’s I think a really extraordinarily excellent piano-sonic recording.  And the way it was set up, the earphone mixes were excellent, so I could hear everybody.  And Todd is a wonderful guy to work with.  He was sensitive, he was helpful, but totally non-intrusive.

TP:    Here’s the way I want to approach the note.  It’s a program that refers to a very wide span of material, and it’s consistent with… I’m afraid I really don’t know your ’60s music or the electronic things you did in the ’70s, but it seems that in the last 15-20 years a lot of your performance has been about including the dynamics of your whole range of experience.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I think that’s very true.

TP:    I would like to take you back a little bit into your influences in conceptualizing the sound of a piano trio.  I’d like you to talk about each of the tunes and the associations those tunes had for you, and a bit formally about how you approached those tunes.  And I would like to go into a little biographical detail about your formative years, which I haven’t read in any of these notes.  So let’s go back to the boilerplate things, and take it into something specific and informative about how it inflects on this record.  You started playing at an incredibly early age.

ZEITLIN:  I started when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old.  I do have memories of sitting on the lap of whichever parent was playing the piano, and putting my little hands on their hands and going along for the ride kinesthetically before I could even play a note.  I had a sense of what it was like to traverse a keyboard.  Then I started just picking out little melodies and improvising, and I think very wisely, my parents held off formal instruction, so that I think I was 7 or 8 before I really had a hunger to start studying music and learning how to read notes.  I was composing and improvising for some years by then.  They sensed that I just needed space and time to explore that.  It was I think a very important decision on their part.  My mother turned out to be my first music teacher.  She was a fairly decent classical pianist and also a speech pathologist, so she brought both medicine and music from her side.  And my father had a very good ear, couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear, and he was a radiologist.  So bilaterally I had both fields from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say that people can follow their muse, and it doesn’t have to be either-or.  I think from very early on I had a sense I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.

TP:    Your first influences were classical, obviously.  When did you start to become aware of jazz?  And more specifically, when did you start to become aware of the notion that there were improvisers who articulated specific voices.  Improvisational personalities.  Let’s say the difference between Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and George Shearing, presuming those are people who are part of your matrix.

ZEITLIN:  I think it was really in eighth grade that I started to listen to jazz and really notice jazz.  Certainly I had heard the music.  But prior to that I was studying Classical music, always drawn much more to 20th Century music and the Impressionist.  It’s as though I took a leap from Bach, whom I always loved, all the way to the Impressionists and beyond.  I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance, and tremendous excitedly by composers like Prokofiev and Bartok and Stravinsky and Berg.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel.  This music just really always touched my soul.

In eighth grade I remember my music teacher brought a little 10″ MGM LP to a music lesson one night, and the title of the album was You’re Hearing George Shearing.  I remember hearing that; the first piece I ever heard him play was “Summertime,” and I remember being just absolutely knocked out, that wow, here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  The rhythmic drive on that album with other instruments… Boy, I just wanted to learn about this genre.  So she began bringing other albums over, listening to Art Tatum, and then I was in…

TP:    You had a hip piano teacher.

ZEITLIN:  Oh, she was great.  She couldn’t play jazz, but she was absolutely wide-open to anything I wanted to do.  It was a great-great blessing.  When I got into my high school, in my freshman year there were a number of other fledgling jazz musicians, and I formed a trio with drums and guitar… I still remember.  We called ourselves the Cool-Tones!

TP:    This was around 1952 or so.

ZEITLIN:  This would be ’52.  I started listening to Bud Powell.  The first trio I ever heard live, in terms of a touring band, was the Billy Taylor Trio, and I remember being tremendously excited by what he was doing and touched by his music.  I felt he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch.  I was particularly drawn to the beauty of his ballad playing, and I loved everything he did.  Bud Powell’s power and angularity and originality spoke to me.  Lennie Tristano’s harmonic conception and the subtleties of what he would do rhythmically with the line of a solo.  I really was drawn to that.  I liked Dave Brubeck a lot.  I thought he had his own thing, and really followed it with tremendous conviction.  I continued to listen to George Shearing.  Certainly Thelonious Monk I liked a lot.  Those were the very early pianistic influences.

TP:    So you were very much in tune with your zeitgeist of your time, in many ways.  This is what the cutting edge was in 1955-6-7.  And you grew up in the north suburbs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I grew up in Highland Park.

TP:    And when did you start partaking of music as beyond your immediate milieu.  You mentioned it briefly before, that at a certain point you started going into Chicago quite a bit, and specifically the South Side scene.

ZEITLIN:  I started going into the city to hear music when I was a freshman in high school, because I was tall and in a dark room I could pass.  But I didn’t actually start sitting in until I was a senior in high school or something like that.

TP:    So there’s the Beehive, the 63rd Street strip…

ZEITLIN:  Yes, the Stage Lounge I remember.  Then there were places like Mr. Kelly’s, the French Poodle…

TP:    How much hanging out did you do?  You did get into medical school eventually!

ZEITLIN:  I did, I did.  But in my spare time, I would just carve it out.  I was immersed in this music, listening to it, rehearsing, going to jam sessions, listening to great musicians.  And there was fortunately a tremendous amount of resident greatness in the Chicago area, as well as people who would come through, traveling headliners that I would get to see.  It was marvelous…

TP:    Were you paying attention to Ahmad Jamal during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I liked Ahmad very much.  I wouldn’t say he was as much of an early influence as these other people I mentioned.

TP:    There are a lot of orchestrative things you do within the dynamics of this record… Well, I guess his impact was so pervasive on the sound of contemporary piano trios…

ZEITLIN:  It’s sometimes hard to… You get immersed in a form, and you listen to dozens and dozens of players, and you get… To some degree, we’re influenced by everything we hear.  What you hope is that you integrate it in a way and that you have something personal to offer, that you develop a personal voice.

I had a chance fairly early on to play with some really fine players, like Bobby Cranshaw, the bassist, and Wilbur Ware, Walter Perkins, a great drummer, Ira Sullivan, a marvelous trumpeter and tenor player, Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin.  Really excellent players.  So all through college I would come up, frequently on weekends, and go to jam sessions and play with these guys, play gigs… Also, there were very good players at the University of Illinois, where I was an undergrad.  Joe Farrell, whose real name was Firantello, was there, and we used to play together a lot.  Jack McDuff was living down there at the time, playing bass as well as organ, and Roger Kellaway was around.  He also played very good bass, as well as piano.  I feel everywhere I’ve gone since high school I’ve been fortunate to find excellent musical opportunities to keep the juices flowing while I was studying either premed or medicine.

The same thing happened when I went to Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1960.  Gary Bartz’s father had a jazz club called the North End Lounge in Baltimore.  I used to go sit in with Gary and some other great cats who… I remember a couple of times Grachan Moncur was down there, and Billy Hart was a resident drummer.  I had a carte blanche invitation, whenever I could sneak away from medical school, to come and sit in.  It was just great fun.

Then in 1963, I stumbled really into recording.  I’d had some inquiries and nibbles early on, and really had some resistance to the whole idea of making a record.  I’d heard so many stories from musicians about how record companies ripped them off, subverted their musical identities, etcetera, etc.  And I figured, “Look, I’m going to be a doctor; I love this music; I can keep it pure; I’ll just play; I don’t really care about particularly a public career.”  Then I was in New York on a fellowship at Columbia in 1963, and Paul Winter, who had been at Northwestern for a number of years and had heard me play and had always liked my playing, he had been recording for Columbia for a year or so, and he dragged me literally kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he just loved what I was doing, and startled me by saying, “Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can record whatever you want, you can use whomever you want” — carte blanche.

TP:    Was what you played within the tradition or in the framework of stretching out?

ZEITLIN:  Both.  John was a marvelous guy with tremendously broad tastes, and he was as good as his word.  He wanted me to get my feet wet with recording by being the featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on Jeremy’s first outing for the label, which was in 1963.  That was a lot of fun.  I remember that session as being a ball.  Ben Riley was on drums and Ben Tucker was on bass.  I thought the chemistry was great among the four of us.  Then what followed were four trio projects for Columbia over the next handful of years.  Out here in California I was able to hook up with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli, and we were a working trio for 2-1/2 years and did an album and a half together.  Then I played with some other cats in a trio, and we recorded most of the last album I did for Columbia, which was called Zeitgeist, actually my favorite of the whole series.  That came out in 1967.

By that time, I’d been listening to quite a bit of Rock-and-Roll and some of the avant-garde electronic music, and I was interested in a lot of what was happening in modern Classical music, and I was getting restless with what felt like the limitations of the acoustic piano sound.  I wanted to be able to bend notes, I wanted to be able to sustain notes like horns and guitar players could.  So I really withdrew from public performance for over a year or so, and tried to do some R&D as to what was available, and I hired engineers to build me sound modules…

TP:    Boy, were you in the right spot in 1968.

ZEITLIN:  Well, a lot was starting.  But this was before you could walk to your corner grocery and come back with a Moog synthesizer under your arm.  This was the era where you take wires and you patch together a sound, and it probably takes you five minutes to do the whole cascade, and then you get one note.  You don’t get two notes.

TP:    It’s fascinating because you’re in on it from the beginning.  It’s as though someone presents something to you, you work with it, then they present something else, you can work with that, and it’s all fresh and new and un-cliched.

ZEITLIN:  I’ve always been drawn to new ways of trying to express myself.  I am attracted to the idea of stretching.  I have never been an either-or type of person.  I’ve always been a both-and type of person.  I think you were quite correct when you talked about the breadth of what I try to do.  For me, there’s no reason why there have to be artificial boundaries between Classical music, Rock, Funk, Jazz, Folk music, Electronic music.  There’s no reason why one has to, in some a priori way, say that some are off-base for others.  There is material in all of those forms that called to me.  Why not try to have a musical palette to paint with that can use all those colors?  That’s what I’m drawn to.  So I was just excited at the prospect of what I could do with electronics.  So I got people to build the various things for me, and sound-altering devices and foot switches and pedals.  A lot of it was totally customized at that point.  Gradually I developed what looked like a 747 cockpit of six or seven keyboard instruments, along with the acoustic piano and miles of cords and banks of flip switches that were more complicated than a B-3 pedal box.  It would take 6 hours to tear this down from my studio at home, take it to a local gig and set it up, play the gig, and then another 6 hours to undo it.  And for several years I did this.  There was a ten-year period, from ’68 to ’78, when I really was involved in this electronic-acoustic integration of all of these forms.  I found musicians who were willing to go on that exploration with me.  People I played with predominantly during that period were George Marsh on drums and Mel Graves on bass.  That’s when I did Szyzgy and the album Expansion, which was the first album of this kind of music.  When I wanted to make a record of it and queried some record labels at the time, I got a lot of responses back saying, “Gee, Denny, honestly we love this music, but we don’t know how in the world we would market it.  We wouldn’t know what conduit to put it through marketing-wise.”  So I ended up starting my own label, called Double-Helix records, to even put this out, and I sold out the first pressing.  Then there was a local, very avant-garde label called 1750 Arch Records which expressed an interest in taking it over, and I was delighted.  Because being an administrator and packing up LPs is not my idea of a good time.  So they took over Expansion, and then I did Szyzgy for them and also a solo piano album of totally free improvisations called Soundings which was released in ’78.

’78 really marked a turning point for me again.  I had an opportunity, again just by luck, to score a major motion picture film…

TP:    The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

ZEITLIN:  That’s right.  Philip Kaufman was a Chicago guy, and he had heard me play and had it in his head that some day he wanted me to do a jazz score for him.  So he called me in in ’78, I guess, or maybe it was late ’77, when he was in the process of getting ready to shoot this film, and asked me whether I would be interested in doing it.  It sounded great to me.  I love science fiction, and I’d always hoped some day I would get a chance to score a major film but figured it was really unlikely.  Because to get that, typically, you live in L.A., you pound on doors for ten years, then you’re given maybe a dozen first projects where the budget is for a kazoo and a harmonica, and maybe if you’re lucky and play enough political games, about five years later you’ll get to score a major film.  So all of a sudden this back door seemed to be opening, and I was very excited about it.  But then it looked like it wouldn’t happen, because Philip’s idea about the film shifted, and it looked like he was going to need an 20th century avant-garde symphonic score.  I had no established credentials for this.  So I had to convince him and his producer that I could do it, and I sold them on it.  And it took some selling.  It was one of the more exciting and challenging experiences I’ve ever had, to be able to write for a symphony orchestra, plus do all of this electronic stuff.  I had the prototype of the Prophet-10 voice synthesizer.  It hadn’t even been released for sale, I believe, at that point.  I remember it wouldn’t even stay in tune for more than about 10 or 15 minutes.  I had to turn it off, let it cool off, and then reboot it.  But for studio work I could use it.  And it had some marvelous capabilities.  I did small group stuff.  I had Eddie Henderson come in, and Mel Martin recorded some things with me.  So I had a chance to do virtually everything I loved to do, plus this whole new experience of writing for a symphony orchestra, and going down to L.A. and having this orchestra play, taking the 24-track tapes back to San Francisco and overdubbing on that, and going back to L.A.  It was an exhausting 10-week project.

TP:    At this point you’re 40 years old and you’re always a practicing psychiatrist.

ZEITLIN:  Yeah.  I started my psychiatric practice in 1968, after finishing a three-year residency at the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Institute, which is part of the U.C. Medical Center in San Francisco.  I’ve been on the clinical faculty since ’68, teaching residents how to do various kinds of psychotherapy, and had a private practice.  So at this point, in ’78, I’m ten years out into practice, still teaching at the university, and having this marvelous opportunity to score this film.

TP:    Are you one of these people who needs 5 hours of sleep?

ZEITLIN:  Actually, if I can get 8, I’m delighted to get 8.  But I can get along, at least in short bursts, on less.  This was a particularly challenging period.  I remember I cut back on my practice 50% for five weeks, had a lot of advance planning so nobody got into any trouble, and I had coverage and everything.  But I do remember after this project was over, it had been very exciting, but so arduous.  I was working 18-19 hour days.  My wife would come down and literally peel me off the piano stool and deposit me in the hot tub to stretch out, put me to bed for a few hours, and I’d get up and do the thing again.  As exciting as it was, after all that, and then having to deal with the politics of Hollywood, which almost involved me having to sue the studio in order to get paid my money, I said to myself, “I’ve had my one experience, I’m very lucky, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”  I had some other offers, and I just shined them on.  I never wanted to do it again.

I was very grateful for the opportunity and very pleased that I was able to have a soundtrack album from it, but it did represent a turning point to me in that I wanted to get back to the purity of acoustic music, and I really haven’t done any major projects with electronics since.  I’ve just been focusing on the acoustic piano and acoustic situations.  What I found, to my pleasant surprise, was that all the years of playing other keyboards and dealing with electronic instruments and synthesizers had opened my ears in some way that I was able to get a lot more nuance out of the acoustic piano than ever before.  So that was an unexpected dividend.  A lot of people have had just the opposite experience, that playing multiple keyboards with different degrees of heaviness of touch, messes up their acoustic piano playing.  But I didn’t have this experience.  So since 1978, I’ve been focusing primarily on solo, duo and trio playing, with an occasional quartet of acoustic music basically.

TP:    It sounds that at a certain point you got very much into John Coltrane’s harmonic system circa 1959-60-61, and you also deal quite a bit with Ornette Coleman’s music.  Could you talk about the impact of that hypermodernism, if we can call it that, on you at the point when it was coming out?  Non-pianistic influences obviously.

ZEITLIN:  That’s a good question, because very rapidly, the major influences for me became non-pianistic.  I think most players start off with their major influences being on their own instrument, but they may then branch out.  Not inevitably, but I think it’s a natural tendency to broaden one’s horizons.  For me it really ended up that the major influences, if I had to look back, were non-pianistic influences.  Miles, Trane, Ornette, George Russell.  Those would be absolutely tops on my list.

Miles’ incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.  I was tremendously drawn to him.

Coltrane, it was like being shot out of a cannon, listening to him.  He was totally ripping the fabric of jazz apart.  Sometimes I’d listen to him and feel like I was watching a terrier shake a rat.  It was incredibly exciting music.  It was like being at the center of a cyclone, listening to Trane in his exploratory earlier period, his harmonic period when he was developing what some people have called a kind of vertical chromaticism.  I was tremendously drawn to that.

George Russell’s writing and ways of thinking about music were tremendously important to me.  I never formally studied the Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization.  But in 1963, when I was a resident at Columbia University for this fellowship (that’s when I met John Hammond), I also hung out with George, studied with him, and it was more a kind of mentorship.  We would hang out, talk about music, play with each other.  He was tremendously encouraging to me, and I think I could make a remark…

I think it’s often notable when people talk about their careers, that there are nodal points where the encouragement of a valued mentor or authority is extraordinarily helpful.  I remember three points in my career where this happened.  The first was Billy Taylor.  He came out to the house with his trio when I was probably a sophomore or freshman in high school, invited by my parents.  We had dinner, and my little fledgling trio played for them. [END OF SIDE] …[he said] there was no reason why I couldn’t do both of them, and talking about the hard life of a full-time working jazz musician.  So his encouragement was priceless.

Then I remember George’s encouragement in 1963, before I even began to record.  Then after I made my first trio album for Columbia, called Cathexis, I had read a Blindfold Test that Bill Evans had done for Downbeat where they played a track from Flute Fever, the first album I did with Jeremy Steig, and he was very complimentary about my playing.  So I figured, well, I’ll give Bill a call and I’ll see if he’s willing to listen to this record and give me a critique and see if he has any suggestions.  I went over and met him for the first time, found him utterly gracious, a gentle man, totally noncompetitive.  He was very secure in his music and didn’t have any trouble being generous to somebody else.  Basically what he told me was, “Look, I don’t have any suggestions other than just keep doing your thing — follow your music.”  That was extraordinarily helpful and encouraging to me at that point, too.

I think of those three guys at those points in my life as being very important moments.

TP:    Finally, the impact Ornette Coleman had on you at the time.

ZEITLIN:  When I first heard Ornette, I just loved that music.  I was in college at the time.  I think the first thing of his I heard was The Shape of Jazz To Come, and I just thought that was marvelous stuff.  I’d always enjoyed since I was 2 or 3 years old free improvisation!  So here were guys doing it in jazz and making a whole form, a whole life out of it.  I thought it was terrific. TP:    Is there anything within what I was talking about that you felt I neglected?

ZEITLIN:  I think we covered a lot of ground.  Just thinking in terms of all the parameters of what would be useful selfishly to me in a liner note, I would hope, though it’s always nice for an artist to imagine that everybody who will buy the album knows who he is, there hopefully will be some people who may hear me for the first time on the air, and say, “Gee, I’d like pick up that CD” and they get it… So if you would be willing to establish some of my credentials in context of the liner notes, the stuff that’s highlighted in the third paragraph of the bio.

TP:    Last night I did a search on you, and two things popped out.  One thing was a blindfold test that Leonard Feather did with Thelonious Monk.  Monk wasn’t listening to anything anyone was playing unless it was an interpretation of Monk, and at the end of the Blindfold Test he played him “Carole’s Garden.”  This was after Monk had pointedly gone to the toilet while Leonard Feather played an Oscar Peterson trio thing.  Monk was listening and said, “Yeah, that piano player knows what’s happening!  He’s a player!  He’s on a Bobby Timmons kick, and that can’t be bad.”  Then I noticed a Marion McPartland interview where she said your technique in playing was so fantastic when you duetted that she felt like a tidal wave was washing over her.  She’s a very gracious person, but not prone to compliments such as that.

How much time do you have now and how much need do you have now to practice?  Is technique something that’s innate in you from having played the piano for so long?  Do you have to practice a great deal to keep up your technique?  If so, how do you find the time to do that?

ZEITLIN:  I do try to get to the piano every day, not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but I am just called to it.  I want to get my hands on the keyboard and I want to get into music.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I’ve never been drawn to the playing of technical exercises.  I think the way I build whatever technique I had initially was from always pushing myself to play classical pieces that were somewhat beyond my current technical capability, and the act of trying to get those pieces together helped me garner new technical skills.  Now when I go to play, usually I’m just going to improvise, or with an ear towards possible composition.  Very often when I play I just have a tape recorder rolling in case something comes up that I’ll want to refer to later.  I want to be free from the tyranny of having to remember everything I play in case I want to notate it later, and so the tape recorder takes care of that and I can let the music flow as best I can and just sort of get out of the way.  Doing that certainly keeps my fingers lubricated, and it really nourishes my soul just to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.  And I think that kind of attitude has also helped me at moments where I am in danger of being derailed by intrusive thoughts of some kind.  Let’s say getting ready to play a concert, and I’m on the road and begin to think about, “Gee, did I really make that plane reservation” or “Did I pack such-and-such?” or “What about my passport?”  I start getting bothered by this things.  I just gentle myself out of that by reminding myself of, in fact, how grateful I am to be able to play.  So it becomes kind of an internal mantra that I will invoke at times when I could be distracted.  This could even happen at a millisecond of playing, in the moment of improvisation.

I think it’s a challenge all improvisers face, is how do you stay in the zone?  It’s certainly a challenge that athletes face and write about.  I’ve played tennis for many years and follow the sport, so a lot of my observations of the parallels of sports and improvisation came from playing tennis and watching tennis and listening to tennis players in interviews talk about their game.  The challenge of staying in that flow experience, or, as Arthur Ashe put it, “being in the zone,” is a tremendous one.  And how do you wipe away your memory of the stupid shot you just dumped into the net at an important point in the match?  How do you make this next point absolutely new?  The same thing is in the line of improvisation.  If I stumble for a moment, if I find myself playing an alternate idea rather than what I was reaching for, am I going to get involved in some self-castigation or a burst of embarrassment, or will I allow myself simply to let it go and be in the moment for this next millisecond of play?  I have found at times just that gentle reminder of the gratitude of being with music has a tremendously therapeutic effect for me.  And I have found actually in my work with patients who are involved in the creative arts, particularly creative performance arts, that talking with them about that has been extremely helpful for the.  In my role as a psychiatrist, using that concept has turned out to be extremely helpful for them, because they end up actually thinking about that and using that, and it centers them in their work.

TP:    Tell me a bit about your practice.  You mentioned that a couple was cancelling… Do you do many different areas of therapy?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I do.  I can tell you a little bit about what I don’t do.  I don’t do hospital psychiatry.  I don’t actively engage in psychological or psychiatric research.  I don’t have time for that, so I am engaged in a research group for the last 25 years that studies psychotherapy research.  I don’t work with very young children, and I don’t do any administrative psychiatry.  Long ago, I realized that if I wanted to be involved in a really organic, passionate way in two fields, I had to be realistic with myself about what aspects of those two careers I could involve myself in with the necessary dedication and intensity to get back and to be able to give what I wanted.  So I pared away these areas I just mentioned in psychiatry, and decided what I wanted to focus on was doing psychotherapy and teaching psychotherapy — that that’s where my heart really lies in the psychiatry field.  So what I do is focus on intensive outpatient psychotherapy, and work with individuals, couples, and people in groups.  On occasion in past years, I’ve worked with whole families, but I don’t do that any more.  I tend to work with people for more than a year at a time, some people for many years, if they’re really involved in in-depth explorations of their lives.  And I find it endlessly fascinating.  If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine what it would be like to do my three-thousandth appendectomy and to infuse it with new excitement.  But as much as it’s true that there are common themes that endlessly repeat in the human life cycle that one hears as you do this work, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  So every opportunity to sit down with a patient in my office again is a parallel opportunity for me to be grateful for the trust that this person is placing in me, grateful for the opportunity to try to understand another human being and to be helpful.

TP:    So it’s not so dissimilar from improvising.  There’s a set of forms that repeat in certain ways, but the context is infinitely different, as is the context and vibration… Not to stretch the theme too far.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I think that there are tremendous parallels.  We were talking yesterday about this merger experience and empathy, and that that and the whole idea of communication is a tremendous parallel between the two fields.  The idea of improvisation holds.  The main difference is that in my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient solo in the best possible way they can, to tell their story.  At times it requires a little added embellishment, the addition of a semicolon or a couple of hyphens or placement of a period or a clarification or a sidebar.  That’s my function, is to help them feel that it’s as safe as possible to go into areas of their life that they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  When I’m accompanying another soloist on the bandstand, the role is really quite parallel.  The biggest difference is that there are times when I am soloing for long periods of time on a stage, and I’m not doing that in my office with patients.

TP:    Let’s run down the tunes one to ten.

ZEITLIN:  All right.  I haven’t given this any advance thought; this is right off the top of my head.

TP:    The title track would seem to be emblematic of your philosophy that music is a blessing.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I thought it was an awfully nice tune to use for the title.  The first time I ever heard that tune was from George Shearing very early in my experience of beginning to learn how to play jazz.  I don’t remember what album it was that he played it with his quintet, but it was one of his early MGM albums.  I always loved the piece.  I’d never played it, except for a duo recording with Charlie haden for ECM in the early ’80s.  It was a piece that Charlie always loved, and we approached it as a vehicle for him to solo on. Then when I was getting material ready for this date, I said, gee, it really would be nice to revisit this piece in a trio context and really play on it.  It’s interesting, as many tunes as Buster Williams has played over the years (you can imagine, there’s virtually nothing he’s not heard), for some reason he had never heard this piece.  He was very intrigued getting into it, and then of course he played his ass off on it.

We had agreed there would be a little vamp at the end of this piece on a particular chord that we would use to just ride out the piece.  I remember this was just a first take, and we did it, and we got into I think this delicious end vamp where there’s all kinds of time being played simultaneously, and just being overlaid and going in and out of phase with each other, and I found it so delicious to play on.  When it was over, we looked at each other and said, “Well, we sure don’t need to play another take on this one.”

TP:    Was most of this record like that?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, that was very much the flavor of the project.

TP:    “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” has been done by numerous people, but what’s your association?

ZEITLIN:  Actually the pull to do that piece was really suggested a few months earlier, when I was asked to participate in a Gershwin concert celebration.  I sat down and thought about, well, if I’m going to do some Gershwin pieces, what would I really like to do.  So I began to approach that tune and “The Man I Love” at that point.  I always like, when I approach a standard, to accept it as a challenge to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but to allow myself to approach it in a way that might breathe some fresh life into it.  That often involves not only reshaping it a little bit structurally, but most often reharmonizing it.  I have felt often when musicians approach reharmonization, they can get seduced by possibilities, and at its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  And often, the tune gets lost, or it becomes so cluttered with reharmonized material that it becomes almost a logjam of material.  So for myself, I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to just see where the tune might go in a new way.

In the case of this tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” I didn’t do an awful lot of reharmonization, and actually there’s relatively little.  What I did is really, in terms of the arrangement, move us through a lot of different approaches to the material.  We state the head, then I play some solo piano on it and allowed myself to cast a nod in Art Tatum’s direction, then at the end of the solo piano which involves a little bit of stride influenced material, to bring Al in for a piano-drum duet, which I’ve always loved to do with drummers, and which he got into just beautifully.  Then we bring in the whole trio.  When the bass comes in, another level of excitement is added, then we’re burning on the tune for a while, and Buster takes a great solo.  The arrangement has a kind of arch form, because as the more double-time part ends, we move back into the original approach of the head of the tune from the beginning.  So in a way, it does form a lot of arch.

TP:    I think I was thinking of that particular performance when I asked you about your experience with Ahmad Jamal’s music.

ZEITLIN:  I don’t really count Ahmad as one of my influences.

TP:    And I’m not going to try to make him one!

ZEITLIN:  But I would certainly underline the comment I made yesterday.  I’ve heard so many people, and I’ve tried to be as porous as I can, and take stuff in.  It’s one of the things I worry about when I write a new composition.  After I write it and start playing it, and it becomes familiar to me, then I start to say, “Unh-oh, where might I have inadvertently taken this from?”  I’ve talked to a lot of jazz composers who go through pangs of that and say, “Unh-oh!”  In a sense, nothing is totally original.  How could it be?  But you hope that you’ve had enough of an aesthetic filter and enough of your own voice has developed over the years that it really emerges as your own.

TP:    In your professional experience, you haven’t done very much playing for singers, have you?

ZEITLIN:  No, not an awful lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album with a singer.  I did one album with a singer that hasn’t been released, a wonderful singer named Susie Stern who wrote the lyrics to “Quiet Now,” which is probably my most well-known composition, courtesy of Bill Evans, who just kept recording it and recording it!  It was so flattering that he never seemed to get tired of it.  He kept it in his repertoire for about 25 years.  So Susie finally wrote a lyric that I could accept for that tune, and I did an album with her where she sings, and it’s just beautiful.

TP:    I ask the question because so many pianists paid the rent by accompanying singers for long periods.  But you always seem to have had a trio thing going on for yourself and sustained it.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.  If I had been a full-time musician having to put bread on the table with it, I might have had to do a number of projects like that.  Maybe some of them I might not have liked.  But that is one of the privileges I’ve experienced because of having two careers, is that I’ve really never had to do anything musical that didn’t really call to me.  I’ve been very lucky that way.

TP:    You’ve been blessed in that way, too.  Another point in addressing the American Songbook.  Are you a lyrics man?  Are you thinking of lyrics, internalizing them, or is it more the abstract sound of the song?

ZEITLIN:  It’s more of the latter.  I’ve read a number of musicians who feel it’s somehow crucial to know the lyric, and almost “How could not and play the tune?”  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer, really, not the lyricist, although certainly the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I do find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any of these tunes that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.

TP:    You’re a Sinatra man.

ZEITLIN:  I am a Sinatra man in terms of male vocalists.  I would say my favorite female vocalists over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.  Those names pop into my head.  Probably an unusual trio of names to list together.

TP:    Billy Taylor said the same thing vis-a-vis lyrics.  Now let’s discuss “For Heaven’s Sake.”

ZEITLIN:  That’s a tune that I first heard Billie Holiday do, and I have to list her with those other three.  Of course, she’s in the top echelon for me.  That was my first experience with the piece.  I couldn’t right now tell you the lyric to that piece, but that’s where I first heard it.  That’s another tune that I reharmonized a bit, and I love to play it.  I’ve been playing it for years, played it as a solo, in duo situations, and in trios, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to record it before.  There were a number of occasions when it was on the roster of possibilities but somehow it didn’t get done.  So I was happy to get this take done with Buster and Al, and it had just the feeling I wanted.  The tenderness and yearning that’s somehow inherent in that melody and in the structure really comes through.

TP:    “There and Back” is your first of two compositions here.  It seems your two most famous compositions were recorded by the time you were 26 or 27, which would be “Quiet Now” and “Carole’s Garden.”  Is composition intertwined with the notion of improvising for you?  You mentioned that you composed some tunes back when you had the Cool Tones as a kid.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I was composing literally at age 2 or 3.  It’s always been a part of my music, and I’ve always seen improvisation as spontaneous composition.  My hope, as part of my own personal aesthetic when I play, is that when I’m improvising there is a sense of a journey, that there is something organic about how it develops.  Ideally there would be almost a retrospective feeling of inevitability about how it had proceeded.  I don’t claim to reach that all the time, but that’s what I’m aiming at, I think, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or just a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake, but that there is something organic and a feeling of intentionality about it.

TP:    Is composing a systematic process for you, or is it more of the moment?

ZEITLIN:  Of the moment.  What happens usually is a few fragments or motifs will develop, and I’ll start working with them, and they’ll start building like crystals build in a solution.  There are rare occasions when something has just burst forth totally complete in some Mozartian fashion, but that’s rare for me.  I remember one tune that happened like that called “One Time Once,” which wrote itself as I was walking to a surgery lecture in medical school.  And there was a tune called “Brazilian Street Dance” which appeared all at once when I was working on a project for Paul Winter’s label, Living Music.  But what happens generally is that a section of a piece appears, or even a thematic idea that is like the beginning of crystallization or a seed from which a composition grows.

There’s basically two sections to “There and Now.”  The way we approach it once we’re improvising on it is that the A-section has more of a feeling of walking jazz time or more that kind of approach to it; the B-section has various kinds of funk or eighth-note/double-note feel on it.  I like the movement back and forth between those two feelings.  Harmonically the way it’s organized just happens to be a roadmap that appeals to me.  In many ways, I think of when I’m setting up pieces to be played by a group… I’m sort of setting up a roadmap that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other.  But there’s all kinds of possibilities for alternate routes, and I hope that they will be taken and I hope that I’ve set up some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that will be challenging to myself and to my fellow musicians who are approaching the piece.  This piece has a number of opportunities like that, which I think brought out some interesting music.

TP:    I’m not familiar with “I’m All Smiles.”  Who wrote it?

ZEITLIN:  A guy named Leonard.  I think it was from a show.  I think the first time I seriously listened to that piece was on Barbra Streisand’s People album years ago for Columbia, which is my favorite album she’s ever done.  It had some fabulous arranging by Peter Mats(?).  It’s Streisand at her best.  It’s most free of the over-emotionality and stuff that she can fall prey to.  The purity of her voice and the feeling..it’s glorious.  And she sings this piece on it, and I’ve always loved it, and again, I was thinking about, “Well, what might I do for this album?”  I realized, “Well, I’ve never actually played that piece; why not get into it?”  So I did, and reharmonized it just a bit because the piece is so beautiful it doesn’t need much help.  We just approached it as a piece we could play and improvise on.  I think it unfolds in a very relaxed way.

TP:    Your “Cousin Mary” continues a line of Coltrane interpretations from that ’59-’60-’61 period of Coltrane.  I was listening to your solos on “Lazy Bird” and of “Fifth House,” which were real virtuoso turns, and I guess this one is very virtuosic, but a restrained, playful virtuosity, dancing through it and deconstructing it.  I was impressed with the ambiance of that interpretation.  Perhaps we can reprise some of your comments yesterday about your response to Coltrane.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I remember my response to the whole Giant Steps album when it first appeared; it was a pivotal album for me.  I was going away on a fishing trip where I wasn’t going to be near much of civilization for a while, and I actually went into a little record store that was near this fishing town.  I rebought the album and made a deal with the record store owner that I could park it with him, and that probably a couple of times in the next two or three weeks, while I was on this fishing trip, I would be needing to come in and hear it.  So that album was precious to me.  I’d played “Cousin Mary” before as a duo.  What I wanted to do again is certainly be respectful to Coltrane, but allow myself to experiment with the tune and its possibilities, so I did reharmonize the head, as you can hear.  Then we really approached it as a blues that you can do anything you want with, and this is what happened on that day.  There is quite a bit of deconstructing of the harmonic structure of the blues at various points in the improvisation.  I felt that Al and Buster were totally up for it.  We took it into some I thought rather unusual spaces that were very exciting and intriguing, and I thought that the overall rhythmic drive of the piece was never lost.  I liked trading sixes with Al; it just kind of happened, and worked out, I thought, very nicely.

“Triste” is a Jobim tune, a tune I first heard Elis Regina do in an album called Elis and Tom with Jobim playing and his arrangements.  I just love that album (it’s one of my all-time favorite Brazilian albums), and I love that piece.  I wanted a bossa-nova, and I’d never played this tune nor recorded it, and so we did it.  That tune I felt required no reharmonization from me.  We play it basically just as Jobim wrote it.

“Canyon” is a minor-bluesoid construction.  It has an unusual little melody the way it’s placed.  It’s a lot of fun to play.  I thought we just got into it and went on a journey with it.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily” is a ballad I’ve loved for many years.  I can’t remember who I first heard do it; I remember hearing Miles do it in the early ’60s.  But I had only started to play it in the last decade or so, in duo or trio formats.  I don’t believe I’d ever recorded it.  This is a ballad that’s full of all kinds of feelings, and I think we really took our time with it, and it unfolds and has this kind of organic feel in terms of how the improvisation developed which I am looking and striving for.  It also happened on the ballad “For Heaven’s Sake,” that there is a real organic journey.

TP:    Finally, “The Man I Love” which is iconic Gershwin.

ZEITLIN:  Again, I tried to organize this in terms of the arrangement in ways to explore different kinds of things we could do as a trio.  I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  It starts with a brief free improvisation on the piano which sets up a mood, then the melody gets stated and the trio comes in and organizes around it.  There’s a big of reharmonization in the structure of the piece, and then there is a vamp figures quite prominently in this piece that serves as I think a very exciting springboard into improvisational overlays.  I get involved in doing this, and then eventually at the end of the piece a kind of climatic session where Al starts soloing over the vamp while Buster and I state it.  Then we ride out the piece on that vamp.

TP:    Is the program in the sequence you recorded it in?

ZEITLIN:  No.  I’d say that would be an extraordinarily rare event.  You  play the pieces, you see what you’ve been able to harvest, then you figure how it would be most listenable when put together.

TP:    And this is the path you’ve followed from your beginnings, a mix of interesting standards, some originals, and some of what are called jazz standards as well.

ZEITLIN:  That’s absolutely true.  I’ve always tended on these projects to program for maximum variety, to sort of reflect what I would do in a concert.

TP:    You came up in Chicago at the same time as Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, [Eddie Harris], many of the people you mentioned.  I’m wondering if you see any particular Chicagoistic qualities in your approach to music.  People who came up then in Chicago talk about the ethos of Chicago musicians being individuality, that stamping your own sound and making your own statement was of paramount importance if you were going to be a respected musician in Chicago.  Apparently you were up 1960.  Your bio says you played professionally there, and the people you played with were individualists of the first order.  So the impact of Chicago on who you are as a musician.

ZEITLIN:  Not having grown up anywhere else, I can’t compare it!  As you say this, I flash back to remembering that there was a lot of value placed on somebody having their own thing.  There was a lot of respect; people would say, “Yeah, he’s got his own thing; he’s really doing something different; listen too that.”  That certainly is something I can recall.

TP:    But as far as forming your ideas, this sort of just happened.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.

TP:    As a teenager, once you started being able to drive is when you started going to clubs in Chicago?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, starting at age 15.

TP:    You’d go down Lake Shore Drive to 63rd Street and hit those clubs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and stay there til 4 or 5 in the morning and come home.

TP:    And go to school.

ZEITLIN:  Well, that was mostly on the weekends.

TP:    And your parents were fine with this?

ZEITLIN:  Well, they knew I was so utterly galvanized by this and that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to just encourage and allow this to happen.  They had a tremendous amount of trust in me, that I wasn’t for example using drugs of any kind or having problems with alcohol,  and that I could be around a subculture like that without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced, and I was trustworthy, and I was able to take this opportunity for this many-year informal apprenticeship in the music that was just priceless.  Because in those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the one had to learn it.  I spent hours and hours listening  to records and rehearsing with people in high school and with other people in Chicago, and then going and listening, and trying to get chances to sit in and get pointers from people, and collaring somebody after the gig and say, “Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?”  By osmosis trying to absorb as much of this art form as I could.

TP:    Did you check out Chris Anderson at all during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, indeed.  That’s interesting.  Very few people even know about Chris.  But when I said I would collar somebody to show me a voicing, I was exactly thinking of a couple of experience I had with Chris where I said, “Chris, I’m not letting you go home.  You’ve got to sit down.  How did you voice this thing, man?”  He showed me some stuff.  I remember just a few remarks he made to me way-way back then that were very-very helpful.  He is an unsung hero, a wonderful musical mind, and everyone who was around in Chicago then knows of Chris and speaks of Chris.  Herbie Hancock talks of Chris, and Bobby Cranshaw remembers Chris fondly.  Chris is prototypic of the kind of musician I would try to collar.

TP:    So we could call him an influence.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, he was an early harmonic influence.

TP:    And perhaps a link between you and Herbie Hancock in some ways, as the two of you are roughly contemporaries.

ZEITLIN:  I never heard Herbie play until I heard him on record with Miles.  I never met him or heard him.  But we certainly grew up around the same period.

TP:    It’s fascinating to me.  You were very young and probably one of the few white kids who would be on that scene, and hanging with some people who had serious addiction problems, like Nicky Hill or Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell.  I don’t know that most people who know you know much about Chicago, or how heavy the musical scene was in Chicago at that time.

ZEITLIN:  Again, having nothing to compare, all I can say is that I felt fortunate that there was so much going on and so much excitement that generally I found musicians so gracious and so willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play… I can’t say that it was always that way; there are instances where you try to talk your way into getting a chance to play at a jam session and it doesn’t happen because they don’t know you.  I certainly had experiences like that.  But overall, it was a very generous spirit in Chicago.  And also, I didn’t experience much Crow Jim flavor at all — only very rarely.  I got some of that in New York when I was sitting in at some places in 1963, when I was on a fellowship.  Got a little feeling of that and a little feeling of the ethnocentricity of New York.  But I didn’t feel that in Chicago growing up at all.  I didn’t feel racial tension at all!  I very often was the only white person in some of these clubs late at night, and I had no cause to feel like I was an intruder, that there was hostility coming my way or that I was in any kind of danger.  It just wasn’t happening.

The genesis of my two careers is the tremendous support I got from my parents, Nathaniel and Roslyn Zeitlin.  One anecdote I think will give you an idea of how supportive they were to me in both ways.  When I began to really get involved in eighth grade in high school and starting to play jazz, they would go to New York, where they typically would go every year because they loved theater, and they would go to all their shows, all their plays, and afterwards, even though neither had been a jazz fan at all prior to my interest, they would go to all the jazz clubs where all my heroes were playing, they would listen to their music, and they would get these players to jot down little notes to me on cocktail napkins!  I remember one from Marion McPartland, and one from George Shearing, and one from Billy Taylor on one occasion.

TP:    Bird?

ZEITLIN:  No, not Bird.  I only got to hear Bird play live once in my life, in a very unlikely context — playing in front of Stan Kenton’s orchestra.  He was looking very dissipated.  But it was a thrill just to hear him play.

[-30-]

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chicago, Chris Anderson, Denny Zeitlin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

Brad Mehldau’s Blindfold Test From 2000 (Uncut) — He Turned 41 Yesterday

Eleven years ago, I had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Brad Mehldau, then 30, and in residence at the Village Vanguard for a week-long engagement. It was conducted in Mehldau’s hotel room on the Upper West Side; if memory serves, he listened to the selections through headphones on a Sony Diskman…or maybe it was an Aiwa. In any event, here’s the pre-edit version.

Brad Mehldau (Blindfold Test) – (9-21-00):

1.    Art Tatum-Red Callendar-Jo Jones, “Just One Of Those Thing,”  THE COMPLETE ART TATUM GROUP RECORDINGS (#1) (1956/199_) (5 stars)

Tatum.  “Just One Of Those Things.”  I guess I know it’s Tatum from his melodic concept on here, because he’s not playing solo, which then you can really hear it in all his voice leading.  Just aesthetically, I prefer his solo playing.  With the rhythm section… I don’t know who this is.  Is this Slam Stewart? [No.] I’m hearing the drum solo now that he’s playing four-to-the-floor.  I have a feeling I should know this drummer from his style on the brushes.  I can’t put a name with it.  But he sounds great.  The bass player, too. [you’ve haven’t heard this before.] No. [Is Tatum someone you’ve listened to a lot?] More his solo stuff, like the Pablo reissue of his solo albums, where it’s just one standard after another and these incredible things.  But this is really something I want to check out. [AFTER] Jo Jones!  Unbelievable.  Definitely 5 stars.  His whole melodic approach to lines, the way he’s playing over changes is so much not-informed by bebop.  It’s so fresh to hear that.  But very unto itself, really dealing with the changes.  He’s also using the whole instrument.  Even though he’s not playing solo, he’s really getting down there.  Amazing.

2.    Chick Corea, “Monk’s Dream,”SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS (Concord, 2000). [solo piano] (4 stars)

I really don’t know that person’s style.  I wouldn’t even know who to guess.  It’s “Monk’s Dream.”  I would give it 4 stars, because it’s really creative and interesting harmonically.  This kind of feel for me is a little jagged.  As a performance, it left me feeling a little unsettled rhythmically, just for my own taste.  But really creative, interesting harmonic things he’s doing, using the upper register there and different melodies going on at the same time in some places. [AFTER] Really?  It’s a live performance, huh?  Nice recorded sound, too.  You can hear a lot of the room in there, which I also like.

3.    Christian McBride, “Lullaby For A Ladybug,”  SCI-FI (Verve 2000). [Herbie Hancock, piano; Diane Reeves, vocal.] (4 stars)

It’s a beautiful composition.  I don’t know the vocalist.  I don’t feel like I know anyone.  The piano player is somebody who’s been influenced by Herbie Hancock, but I’m not sure whether it’s Herbie himself.  It’s a tough call. [Why is it hard to tell?] That’s a good question.  There are some spots where the piano player is playing a lot, maybe more than sometimes Herbie does — but sometimes Herbie plays a lot, too.  That would probably be my only criticism, is that on the actual piano solo itself it’s a little out of context to what’s going on around the whole thing, and sometimes he’s jumping on the vocalist a little with some of the things that he’s reacting to.  But just my taste; that’s a taste thing.  But the track is beautiful.  The composition itself, and the recorded sound is great. [So do you think it’s Herbie or not?] I’d probably guess Herbie.  [LAUGHS] I got a couple of them right here.  Diane Reeves?  I don’t know who the composer was. [AFTER] No kidding?  I didn’t even recognize Christian, because he’s so unobtrusive.  Wow, I’m going to have to get this record.  Who is the drummer?  He’s great.  4 stars.

4.    Hank Jones-Dave Holland-Billy Higgins, “Yesterdays,” THE ORACLE (Emarcy, 1989). (4 stars)

That’s got to be Billy Higgins on drums.  It’s kind of tough to tell the piano player.  I’m not sure about the bassist.  Maybe Ron Carter?  The piano player, there’s a feel there that’s kind of like the feel I associate with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, but I’m not sure whether it’s one of them.  I really don’t know.  It was a little aimless in some parts of the arrangement, but it felt great.  I liked how it started out in D-minor, I think, and then modulated down, and I liked that little bass thing.  4 stars.  Every record Billy Higgins is on is just going to feel great.  I’ve played with him a few times with Charles Lloyd.  The experience of playing with him is like nothing else; it’s like being taken for a ride.  I should have just guessed Hank!

5.    Geoff Keezer, “Maple Sugar Rays,”  ZERO ONE (GMN, 2000). [solo] (3-1/2 stars)

Maybe Mulgrew on some solo record I don’t know? [You’re warm.] I don’t want to make a generalization, but for me the style was a little too much of the same thing for the whole thing.  It’s kind of predictable after a while.  Really inside the harmony, and a certain kind of melodic vocabulary that sort of sounds like a vocabulary already.  So after a while I’m not too interested listening to this.  Also, dynamically it’s always pretty loud, which after a  while gets on my nerves.  There were some spots in the arrangement that were nice, where he was doing some harmonic stuff that made it interesting, but for the rest of it I felt like he was kind of running stuff.  It got to be a little of the same after a while.  3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] That’s interesting, because I have this but I’ve only listened to it once.  Was this an original?  Some of the pieces on here were really different, where he’s treating the piano.  That makes sense, because it’s a certain style… It’s more of an aesthetic thing than an actual qualitative thing, because that’s a whole school of piano playing that I haven’t gravitated towards too much, like Harold Mabern and some of those guys.  It’s not my taste.

6.    Bill Charlap, “All Through The Night,”  ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Criss-Cross, 1997). [Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums] (4-1/2 stars)

I really enjoyed it.  It was tough, because the solo introduction was sort of in a different style than what it turned into with the trio.  I was thinking about the trio as it went along… Maybe Ahmad Jamal.  I don’t know who it is, then, but I really loved the performance.  I thought this arrangement where they kept going back to that theme reminded me of something Ahmad might do.  But the melodic concept was… You could hear some of a bebop kind of  thing in there.  Also, we were just listening to Tatum.  There are some triple-time things he was doing, but very original, though, in his or her own right, with the lines, doing some different, creative, fresh melodic things that really were fun to listen to.  I really liked it.  A great, swinging trio thing.  It was really locked-up.  Not 5 stars, because I could have done without the intro, a lot of flashy stuff.  4-1/2 stars.  Cole Porter really has a specific sound as a composer.  Sometimes it reminded me of “From This Moment On,” sort of the way his harmonic movement is.  But Bill put in some great changes on his own, too, that really were nice, the way they worked with the melody under it.

7.    Earl Hines, “Prelude To A Kiss,”  PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON (New World, 1974/1997) [solo piano] (5 stars)

Wow!  I don’t know the performance, but I think it’s Monk.  It’s not Monk?  It’s “Prelude To A Kiss.”  Whoever it is, I’ll have to give it five stars.  It’s so deep harmonically, what he’s doing inside the chords, the way it builds up as an arrangement throughout.  He starts from something and just develops out of it organically, and it gets more and more dense.  The other thing that’s great is once the time starts it’s really right there.  You can always hear the quarter-note no matter what’s going on.  I don’t know Monk’s solo playing too much; that’s why I might have guessed him. [Monk would tend to be sparer.] A little more spare, yes.  Because I did hear, again, some of those Tatumesque runs in there.  That seems to be a theme of a lot of what we’re listening to. [Do you think it was a more contemporary player or an older player?] I’m going to guess older because of the nature of the recording quality and the piano horribly out of tune!  But I just don’t know.  I’m disappointed in myself. [AFTER] [In your learning process, were you into older piano players?] Not as much.  It’s more just because I haven’t gotten around to them yet.  But the ones that I really know are some Tatum and some Duke.

8.    Ahmad Jamal, “I Love You,”  BIG BYRD (Verve, 1996). [James Cammack, ass; Idris Muhammad, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion] (4-1/2 stars)

I’m going to guess Ahmad again.  That’s a great arrangement.  Now it’s staying on this vamp and… I don’t know his later records too much, but I’ve had the chance to hear him live a lot, and there’s still that great way of taking “I Love You” and making these vamps throughout it which make it a different kind of compositional thing.  And he plays so compositionally, too.  He plays with that arrangement.  The tune is almost incidental a lot of the time, which is what’s so great about it.  I definitely checked out “Live At The Pershing” and “Awakening,” the one that he did “Dolphin Dance,” explored the oeuvre of Herbie and Bill Evans.  The drummer has a really fat groove.  4-1/2 stars.

9.    John Hicks, “Passing Through,” AN ERROLL GARNER SONGBOOK (High Note, 1997). [solo piano] (3-1/2 stars).

I have no guesses on this one.  I’m coming up short here.  [AFTER] Again, that’s sort of not my aesthetic.  My thought was that this is someone who probably plays more in groups regularly, and solo piano is sort of a departure for him.  What I noticed is that… Maybe it’s because I’m a piano player.  I feel that his rhythmic thing is almost reacting to an invisible band that’s not there.  So as a solo performance, I wanted a little more of what the bass and drums would typically supply somehow, no matter how abstractly that might be.  It felt like there was this hole.  The composition was kind of normal for my taste.  It didn’t particularly get me too much.  3-1/2 stars.  Nice recorded sound.

10.    Kenny Kirkland, “Ana Maria,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) [Andy Gonzalez, bass; Jerry Gonzalez, congas; Steve Berrios, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer]

I love the composition, but I can’t pick out which one it is.  The shape of the melody sounds familiar.  Is it a Wayne tune?  I love the way the piano player states the melody, nice and rhapsodically through the bar-line, with a nice texture building up.  During the blowing the piano player has a nice, crisp technique in the right hand which I always enjoy hearing.  The kind of crispness I associate with Wynton Kelly, a really articulate thing which is nice in the double-time stuff.  I thought it could have been maybe a chorus shorter, because after a while you hear certain melodic shapes repeating themselves over and over again.  As a group performance, I felt like there was a piano player, then there was this percussion thing that was reacting with the piano a little rhythmically in the double-time stuff, and the bass and drums were sort of in the background.  It could have been the mix.  I have no clue who it would be.  4 stars. [AFTER] Kenny Kirkland is another one I haven’t gotten to.  I kind of missed him.  I was so involved in my own listening pattern in the early ’90s and late ’80s.  I was really into guys like Sonny Clark and Mal Waldron — a lot of compers.  I loved Mal Waldron, and the stuff he did with Steve Lacy; the minimalism he uses appealed to me.

11.    Denny Zeitlin, “Cousin Mary,”  AS LONG AS THERE’S MUSIC (32 Jazz, 1997/2000). [Buster Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums] (5 stars)

That got me off the most out of anything you’ve played thus far.  It felt great.  I don’t know the piano player, but I might know the bass and drums.  Maybe it’s not them, but it sounds a little like Ben Riley and Buster Williams, that kind of feel.  Oh, it is Buster.  The drummer has that great tipping feel; it feels so good.  I love the piano player.  I never hear any vocabulary.   First of all, the arrangement of “Cousin Mary” is really great.  You would think, “What can you do with that tune?”—but he finds another harmonic thing that really is also referring to the original, with the strange, different chords for the blues.  You get the feeling that he’s blowing on that, but at a certain point he’s just getting away from what roots should be, and he’s sort of making up different forms of the blues — one thing, one thing, one thing, and then… Again, these 12-bar things.  Which I love. [Does he remind you of anybody?] You can hear a lot of the history of piano playing in there.  I’m probably going to be really embarrassed that I should have known him.  5 stars. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin!  Wow.  I’ve never heard him.  Charlie Haden always tells me to check this guy out.  Really inspiring.  A great trio performance.  For me the piano is a little high in the mix, but it still doesn’t detract.  It’s still really great.

12.    Martial Solal, “Round Midnight,”  BALLADE DU DIX MARS (Black Saint, 1998) [Paul Motian, drums; Marc Johnson, bass] (4 stars)

The tune is “Round Midnight,” but you’ve got me stumped on the player.  Because I just heard Paul Motian play duo with Frisell in Monterrey, some of the brushwork in this kind of approach where there’s not a leader was reminding me of Motian.  I could do a deductive thing and say maybe it’s Paul Bley.  No?  Now, when I just Paul with Bill, one thing I liked is that within a rhythmic context they were following each other a lot, phrasing together.  With this, one criticism would be that the piano player was going and the other guys were following his phrasing.  So after a while it got to be a little too much of that, and not so much interaction.  It gets kind of noodly, I guess — for me.  Within all that, there were flashes of harmonic things sticking out there in between.  So it might be the kind of thing I could listen to more and start to enjoy more.  It’s definitely a brilliant performance.  I like how the bass player, too, was finding certain notes in there to ground it.  4 stars

13.    Ornette Coleman-Joachim Kuhn, “Passion Cultures,” COLORS (Verve-Harmolodic, 1997) (5 stars)

It’s beautiful.  I think it’s Ornette and Joachim Kuhn.  Beautiful!  I have another record of them that was made in the studio which is much different than this.  Somebody gave it to me in France.  It’s so great to hear a real kind of tonal thing, for the most part, taking place, these modal sections with Ornette’s beautiful melodic thing over it, and then the way Joachim Kuhn found his way out of the harmony slowly, with Ornette.  It’s a wonderful process.  A nice composition that really stands up, the whole thing.  There’s this sort of urgency or sort of mortality feeling to that melody, something haunting that Ornette has the ability to evoke so well.  They’re really together on that.  5 stars.  Definitely a great performance.  Nothing wrong with that.  I checked out mainly the early Atlantic stuff with the quartet, with Don Cherry and Charlie, like Change of The Century, This is Our Music. [Does his late ’60s stuff or the ’70s harmolodics appeal to you?] That stuff I haven’t checked out as much.  Actually, just in the last couple of months while I was on the road, Larry Grenadier was playing me a few things I’d never heard by Prime Time.  So that’s all another “yet” to me.  A lot of times with that quartet, I hear changes.  I’ve talked to Charlie Haden, and he’s like, “Hey, man, we were just making up changes.”  But there’s still definitely a harmonic component going on.

15.    Ruben Gonzalez, “Almendra,”  INTRODUCING RUBEN GONZALEZ (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 1996) (4-1/2 stars)

It’s a great rhythm section.  It sounds Cuban from the beat.  I’m not too familiar with the players, so I really wouldn’t know who to guess.  But I love the bass player and the Latin rhythm section; they’re so locked in.  The arrangement is cool, because they’re just blowing over this… You hear the beginning, the head, and it’s a V-chord.  So it’s suspended on this pedal thing for the whole blowing, because he’s just staying there.  And the piano player is rhythmically free of that and he’s sort of just playing over everything, extemporizing over that, which at first is interesting, but I guess after a while it sort of drags on a little. The content was interesting.  I found myself being reminded of Duke sometimes, actually, in the spaciousness of the way he plays melodies sometimes 2 or 3 octaves apart and leaves this wide-open space in the middle and gets in the lower end or upper register, and using those parts of the piano — and some of the voicings, too.  I thought it was really interesting, the chromatic things he was doing.  4-1/2 stars.

_________
It’s really interesting.  It’s difficult after the fifth one.  You find yourself swamped with information and it gets hard to be objective.  But you never are objective, really.  You’re listening, and then it would be nice to listen to it again.  Then your opinion might change.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, DownBeat